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Coming to Tokyo 'a great gift' for Ichiro

@gregjohnsmlb
March 17, 2019

TOKYO -- If Ichiro Suzuki's career is about to end, he’s not letting on. But as the 45-year-old Japanese legend goes about his business this week with the Mariners, preparing for the Opening Series against the A’s on Wednesday and Thursday in the Tokyo Dome, he does plan on soaking

TOKYO -- If Ichiro Suzuki's career is about to end, he’s not letting on. But as the 45-year-old Japanese legend goes about his business this week with the Mariners, preparing for the Opening Series against the A’s on Wednesday and Thursday in the Tokyo Dome, he does plan on soaking in the scene.

“This is a great gift for me,” Ichiro said at a packed news conference Saturday prior to Seattle’s first workout following their 12-hour flight from Arizona. “I will treasure every moment here on the field. One week after this event, I will be reflecting back on these days, so I will make sure I remember every moment here in Japan.”

Ichiro is expected to start in left field in Wednesday’s 2:35 a.m. PT opener, and the mere sight of him running out to his position figures to trigger an avalanche of noise in the 45,000-seat facility -- much as it did during the Mariners' 6-4 exhibition win over the Yomiuri Giants on Sunday, when Ichiro played right field and went hitless in three at-bats.

After the two exhibition games against the Giants on Sunday and Monday, there will be a pair of regular-season games against the A’s. With a 28-man roster for the international games, the Mariners have an extra outfield spot for Ichiro.

When they return to Seattle and have to cut down to a final 25-man roster for their home opener March 28 against the Red Sox, it’s unlikely there’ll be a spot on the rebuilding club for him. But while general manager Jerry Dipoto said he’s discussed what happens next with Ichiro, he insists, “We have drawn no conclusions” as to the end game.

“We’re just going to appreciate this week for what it is, an opportunity to send him out to the field and see where it leads,” Dipoto said. “Our commitment was that if he comes out of spring healthy, he’s going to be in the lineup when we get here to Tokyo. That has happened, and we’re going to take the next step and see where that takes us.”

It’s impossible to ignore the reality, however, that the 10-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove Award winner is nearing the end. He hit just 2-for-25 in Cactus League play this spring, with three walks and nine strikeouts.

But while everyone else may be pondering the end, Ichiro bristled a bit when asked at Saturday’s news conference -- an event packed with several hundred Japanese journalists -- how he’d know when it’s time to stop playing.

“When would I know?” Ichiro replied. “I have no idea when I would know that. I’m not used to questions like this.”

But when you’re 45 years old, you are used to having to prove yourself over and over, even when you’ve collected more hits than any player in history when combining the numbers from Japan and MLB.

While manager Scott Servais said Ichiro’s situation is being taken day by day at this point, it doesn’t faze him.

“In 2012, I was traded to New York, and after that, I lived day by day to my utmost,” Ichiro said. “After I moved to Miami, I did the same thing. Day after day, I trained. In the Major Leagues, it’s a very tough world. You can be told at any time that you’re gone. That is my basic understanding. But I’m still here.”

Dipoto believes Ichiro earned this opportunity “as a tribute to his career,” not just as a Mariner, but as a worldwide phenom.

“He’s accomplished so much,” Dipoto said. “He’s been an MVP, a batting champ in two countries, he’s had more hits than any player that ever played. For most players, it ends quickly. The average prime years for a player in baseball today is about 27-28 years old. That’s how long Ichiro has been playing.

“Think about that. Ichiro has been playing about as long as Mitch Haniger has been alive. That’s a phenomenal thing.”

So is the hoopla surrounding Ichiro and new Mariners starter Yusei Kikuchi as they’ve returned to their native land this week. For their teammates, it’s been an eye-opening experience from the moment they touched down in Tokyo.

“I can’t imagine what that’s like, to walk around the city or try to go out to dinner,” said Mariners left-hander Wade LeBlanc, who played one year in Japan in 2015. “They’re like gods here. They’re bigger than rock stars are in America, and that’s crazy to think about. It’s hard to wrap your mind around.”

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.