TOKYO — Despite struggling at the plate the entire spring and looking every bit his 45 years of age, Ichiro will be in the Mariners’ starting lineup Wednesday night in the Tokyo Dome when they open the 2019 season against the Oakland A’s.
“Ichiro is going to start for us in the first game against the A’s,” manager Scott Servais said following the Mariners’ 6-5 victory over the Yomiuri Giants in an exhibition game. “He’s been playing fine in the outfield. He’ll start the game and we’ll see how it plays out from there.”
Servais is well aware Ichiro went 2 for 25 in Cactus League games and went 0 for 3 in each of the two exhibition games in Tokyo. But the arrangement of having Ichiro on the team and in Japan has dated back to early last season when he took on a role in the front office after being removed from the 40-man roster. The Mariners won’t give any details about an agreement for Ichiro to play in these games, but he’s here with the team and he will run out to right field in the first inning.
“I’m excited for him,” Servais said. “It hasn’t been a great spring training for him offensively. But if there’s anybody who can turn it on for a few days, it’s Ichiro. I look forward to the games coming up, and he will be in the lineup.”
In most years and organizations, this would seem unfathomable on many levels. But the Mariners’ nostalgic love of their past successes as a team (which are few) and of their players is well documented. Given the team’s new direction, which has been called a step back, the focus isn’t on the 2019 season but building for 2020 and 2021. While they aren’t going to tank it in 2019 and they don’t consider it a throwaway year, they also aren’t trying to pool their resources into one last push to break a postseason drought that dates back to 2001 — the first year Ichiro played for the Mariners.
Sources have said the plan is to remove Ichiro from the 40-man roster some time after this trip to Japan. Seattle restarts its season March 28 against the Red Sox at T-Mobile Park. Ichiro has steadfastly refused to acknowledge his future beyond these games. Will he retire? Will he return to a special assistant to the chairman role? If anyone knows the answer, it’s a secret that is being well kept.