PEORIA, Ariz. — For the first time since perhaps infancy, Ichiro has begun a baseball season with no aspirations of being an active ballplayer.
And fully at peace with that circumstance.
The last vestiges of that chapter of Ichiro’s life — one that made him a legend on two continents and will land him in the Baseball Hall of Fame in five years — was satisfactorily concluded last year in Japan.
Activated for the Mariners’ two games against the Oakland A’s in Tokyo, Ichiro announced his retirement and was bathed in love and adulation from both fans and teammates. The whole spectacle “couldn’t have gone better than it did,” Ichiro said.
“I was able to end it right there,” he said Friday, speaking through interpreter Allen Turner. “I think it helped me go to my next step. If it had ended on a sad note, I don’t think I would have been able to even watch a game. If it ended not in a good way, I think I would have wanted to play again. But because of how special it was, I was able to turn the page and finish that part.”
Now Ichiro is starting a new aspect of his baseball life, at age 46, throwing himself wholeheartedly into his role as a Mariners coach. The official title remains “special assistant to the chairman,” but in Mariners camp this spring, Ichiro is a full-time, fully uniformed instructor. He is imbuing Mariners players young and old — but especially young — with his vast knowledge of the game.
“He’s transitioning,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He’s listening, getting a good feel for our young guys. He really likes our young players. He likes how they’re wired. There’s things he sees, I’ve often mentioned, that some of us don’t.”
Case in point occurred here Thursday, when Ichiro had a long meeting with Servais to provide his insights on the Mariners’ split-squad game against the Chicago White Sox, which Servais had not attended. When asked what Ichiro had said about Jake Fraley’s homer off a 101-mph fastball, Servais said it didn’t even come up.
“It’s usually the things that maybe other people don’t see or things that he thinks are really important to winning baseball,” Servais said.
Ichiro said there is no reason to belabor the obvious points that are revealed through data, technology or statistics.
“Everybody knows what happened,” he said. “But I think the reason I’m here is for those things numbers can’t tell. … That’s what I love to watch, too. I love to watch baseball in that sense.
“You might go through a couple of games and not see anything. But there might be that one thing you see, it may be small, but it could change the whole way the team goes, or the season. Those are things I love to watch and talk about.”
With his clean break in Tokyo, Ichiro doesn’t pine for the days when he was one of the game’s most charismatic players. A two-time batting champion, Ichiro was named American League MVP as a Mariners rookie in 2001, set the season hits record with Seattle in 2004 and finished his MLB career with 3,089 hits (on top of 1,278 with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan).
“I never think, since then (his final game), I want to get up there and play again,” Ichiro said. “I haven’t thought that once. But I do watch and think, ‘I would have done that that way,’ or ‘If I was in the game, I would have done it this way.’ I do think like that, but I never think I want to play again.”
Some habits never die, however. In preparation for this season, knowing he would be called upon for hands-on coaching, Ichiro trained with an athlete’s zeal.
“It’s very different, because before I was just working on myself, getting ready for the season,” he said. “This year I come in and I’m able to look at the whole thing, everybody, and how it’s run. So you’re looking at a different angle. That’s definitely the biggest difference.
“But I tried to prepare myself physically like I would be playing. I wanted to be able to, if I was asked, show how to do something. Or if they asked me a question about something, I could do it with them, and show them that way. If I was to gain weight, and all of a sudden come into spring and be big, that wouldn’t be good.”
Ichiro, in fact, doesn’t look like he’s gained an ounce since his prime with Seattle. And he still carries himself with the grace of an athlete. He has quickly displayed an ability to throw effective batting practice, even to those players who want him to challenge them with velocity and breaking pitches.
He has also displayed an artistry in hitting fungoes that elicited rhapsodic praise from Servais. The manager said it was one of those periodic displays of prowess he’s seen in his career that makes him take notice of just how unique it is.
“Ichiro’s at the plate, and Allen’s flipping him balls. It was amazing,” he said. “I watched this guy hit 50 balls. He hit 45 of them perfectly. Like, ‘OK, I’m going hit these in front of you now,’ and they come running in and it’s perfect, shoestring catch.
” ‘OK, now I’m going to hit them over your head,’ and it’s right at the wall. And the fans are just watching it, the players are just going about their business. I’m thinking, ‘Do you people not know how hard that is to do?’ It’s a gift. I talked to Allen about it. He said, ‘He was practicing all winter.’ Not surprising. Nothing amazes me anymore about that guy. Just a love for the game.”
It’s just that now Ichiro’s love is manifesting itself in different ways. On Friday, he and Mike Cameron — another defensively gifted former Mariners outfielder serving as a camp instructor — had a long, passionate conversation about how to get the best jump on the base paths.
He joked that Cameron said to him, “Why didn’t you tell me this 20 years ago?”
Those kinds of discussions, the “inside baseball” debates over the intricacies of the game, are what energize Ichiro these days. When the season starts, he will dress only for home games, and he will visit various Mariners minor-league affiliates.
“You have an opinion, you talk about it, ‘What’s the reason why we do this?’ ” Ichiro mused. “You have another opinion, maybe it’s opposite. But by doing that, maybe it improves it a little bit. It keeps baseball moving forward.
“I’m the type, I don’t want to just go along with something just because everyone else is, and you don’t want to cause problems and create waves. By doing that, and having someone think another different way, I think it creates getting better.”
As Servais said, Ichiro is impressed with the Mariners’ young talent. And he wants to be part of helping them learn how play winning baseball.
“I think there’s a lot of great talent here. But baseball’s not about how hard you throw, or how far you hit the ball. It’s a game, and there’s a lot of things that come into play. I’d love to see them learn how to play baseball and be able to become great baseball players. That’s what I’m hoping for from them.
“I feel like baseball today, there’s a lot of homers, obviously breaking records for the last couple of years. You’re almost playing for that two-run homer, three-run homer. But in baseball, you can actually score a run without getting a base hit. If a team can learn that part of it, and of course have the other power and things that come into play, that would complete a team. I’d love to see is this team be able to learn that baseball.”
If that happens, perhaps the Mariners can finally end their 18-year playoff drought. The ballclub has not competed in the postseason since Ichiro’s rookie year with them.
Asked what it would mean to have a role in getting the Mariners back to the playoffs, Ichiro characteristically turned the question in a different direction.
“Because we haven’t been to the playoffs for so long, if you make that a goal, sometimes it kind of seems far,” he said. “I think what we need to do is make shorter goals, smaller goals that we can achieve every day.
“Doing something over and over — maybe it might be small, but just clearing those and doing those every day can turn into making the playoffs. Turn into, becoming the World Series champions at the end.”
Meanwhile, Ichiro seems genuinely happy as an ex-player passing on his knowledge. Ichiro, Cameron and another camp instructor, Franklin Gutierrez, are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. so they can take a group picture of four of the five Mariners outfielders (along with Jay Buhner) to win a Gold Glove.
“It has been great to be in uniform and be with those guys again on the baseball field,” he said. “That’s been awesome.”