Ichiro bats twice before leaving to ovation

45-year-old was second-oldest position player to start Opening Day

March 20th, 2019

TOKYO -- didn't get any hits in the Mariners' 9-7 Opening Day win over the A’s in the Tokyo Dome on Wednesday, but the venerable outfielder clearly was the hit attraction for a sold-out crowd relishing his return to Japan.

Ichiro popped out in the third and worked a nine-pitch walk in the fourth inning from his No. 9 spot in the order before being replaced in the bottom of the fourth by manager Scott Servais. In the process, Ichiro became the second-oldest position player -- and sixth-oldest player overall -- to start a Major League season opener and the first Major Leaguer to reach base safely at age 45 or older since Omar Vizquel on Oct. 3, 2012.

“We certainly want to give him the opportunity to go out and play, but also get some other guys in the game,” Servais said. “I understand everybody wants to see him go all nine innings, but we’re trying to do the best thing for the team and Ichiro understands.”

Servais said Ichiro would definitely play in Thursday’s finale of the two-game series, though he indicated that might be an appearance off the bench. Servais made the unusual move of having Ichiro go out on the field before summoning him back to the bench in the bottom of the fourth, where he was greeted by hearty hugs and handshakes from his teammates while Daniel Vogelbach entered the game in his place.

“It’s a great honor for us to come back here with Ichiro, understanding what he means to the Mariners’ franchise,” Servais said. “We know what he means to baseball here in Japan, but he also means a lot to our entire organization in Seattle. We want to send him out here in front of his home crowd in Japan the best way we can. We’re just trying to give him every chance to tip his hat, because he’s certainly deserving of it.”

Vogelbach wound up getting hit in the right elbow by a pitch from Ryan Dull in the fifth and had to be taken out himself for the final three innings, though he hopes to be back in action by Thursday.

As for being the guy who took Ichiro’s spot in front of his hometown crowd?

“That’s a tough guy to replace,” said Vogelbach, who entered the game at first base while Jay Bruce shifted to Ichiro’s position in right field. “It was unbelievable to see the atmosphere here tonight. Getting to watch him play is always an honor. Not many people can say they do it, so I take everything in from him and just enjoy it. He’s an unbelievable player and unbelievable person and it’s just cool to watch him go out and play every night.

While the game was officially a home contest for the A's, the crowd was clearly in the Mariners' corner, and both Ichiro at-bats were dutifully recorded by thousands of smartphones as flash bulbs lit up the Dome as fans looked to capture a piece of history.

Ichiro was 45 years, 149 days old on Wednesday. The only older position player to start on Opening Day was Julio Franco, who was 45 years, 227 days old in 2004 when he started for the Braves at first base.

The oldest player ever to start an MLB Opening Day game was right-hander Jack Quinn of the Brooklyn Robins in 1931 at age 47. Knuckleballers Charlie Hough of the Marlins (1994) and Phil Niekro of the Yankees ('85) both started openers at age 46 and Tommy John was just shy of his 46th birthday when he pitched the opener in '89 for the Yankees.

Ichiro hasn’t carried a hot bat after hitting just 2-for-31 this spring, but the 10-time AL All-Star is carrying the hopes of an entire nation as he has been the center of attention all week in his return to his native country.

The Mariners have promised only that Ichiro will be given a chance to play in the two-game Opening Series at the Tokyo Dome, where the team is allowed three extra players from the normal 25-man roster.

It remains to be seen what happens when the Mariners return to Seattle to open their home season next Thursday against the defending World Series champion Red Sox, but for now, they’re enjoying the spectacle of Ichiro’s homecoming.

“That was a special moment, to see him come off the field with everybody screaming and cheering for him,” said second baseman Dee Gordon. “I know they were disappointed to see him come out of the game, but for us, we’re just happy to see him embraced by everyone.”