SEATTLE -- Ichiro Suzuki insists he's not retiring from baseball. He's not done playing, in his mind anyway. That's the hard part, walking away from the game after 27 seasons in Japan and the Major Leagues.So the 44-year-old icon will transition in a unique way, accepting the opportunity to finish
SEATTLE -- Ichiro Suzuki insists he's not retiring from baseball. He's not done playing, in his mind anyway. That's the hard part, walking away from the game after 27 seasons in Japan and the Major Leagues.
So the 44-year-old icon will transition in a unique way, accepting the opportunity to finish this season as a special assistant advisor with the Mariners, without shutting the door on a potential return to the playing field in 2019.
"When I start using a cane, that's the time that I think I should retire," Ichiro said.
It happens that the Mariners open next season in Tokyo in a two-game series against the A's and rules allow for an expanded 28-man roster for that international Opening Series, so perhaps the door indeed isn't slammed.
But Ichiro does know he can't play forever and said he's found a peace in his return to the Mariners this season.
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"The past two months have been the happiest I've been," he said. "I knew the day would come when I would have to walk away. But the Mariners have given me this opportunity to stay on. Obviously with my teammates and how great they've been and how much they mean to me and how much I want to help is the reason I wanted to stay on and help in any way I can."
In his new role, Ichiro will continue suiting up for pregame work, taking batting practice, talking with players in the clubhouse and meetings. The only difference, according to general manager Jerry Dipoto, is he won't be on the active roster for the remainder of this season.
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"This doesn't close the door on Ichiro's playing career, I'd like to make that clear," Dipoto said. "We intend that whenever is the appropriate time for Ichiro to retire, that that will happen as a Mariner. But we don't think we're at that point yet either."
Right-handed reliever Erik Goeddel was promoted from Triple-A Tacoma to take Ichiro's spot on the 25-man roster and was in uniform for Thursday night's series finale with the A's.
Dipoto and manager Scott Servais believe Ichiro has helped the Mariners get off to a strong start this season with his veteran presence and are eager to keep him in the organization. During games, he won't be able to be on the bench, but will remain active behind the scenes, likely spending games in the video room or clubhouse.
He took batting practice on Thursday just like normal, chatting and joking with teammates and then going about his usual business in his professional fashion.
"My title has changed, but from the outside I think you're just not going to see me in the dugout during games," Ichiro said. "I want to be able to help in any way I can. I'm not going to be the one going up to guys saying this or that. I'll be there for anybody. If I know the answer, I'm there in any way for them."
Ichiro unveiled a little of the quiet humor that has endeared him to teammates when noting that a surprise appearance on the bench shouldn't be totally ruled out.
"I can't say for certain that maybe I won't put on a beard and glasses and be like Bobby Valentine and be in the dugout," he said.
Dipoto feels Ichiro's unique presence has been felt already this season.
"He's kind of like the Dalai Lama in the clubhouse," Dipoto said. "You see it on the flights. He'll sit down in his chair and immediately Dee Gordon is sitting next to him and Mitch Haniger is turning sideways from across the row. The guy in front of him is leaning back in his seat. It's almost like they're all waiting for him to opine from the mountain top.
"He's got a great presence about him. When I met Ichiro in Peoria, which is the first time I'd met him face to face, he walked in and had more presence than any other baseball player I'd ever encountered. And I've been doing this my entire adult life, been in the game close to 30 years and met and played with and against every great in my lifetime really and never met one quite like Ichiro."
The veteran outfielder re-signed with the Mariners this spring as a free agent and batted .205 (9-for-44) in 15 games while filling in for an injured Ben Gamel in left field. But with Gamel coming off the disabled list two weeks ago, the Mariners haven't had a need for a fifth outfielder and Ichiro's playing time had been sparse.
Ichiro played one final game for Seattle on Wednesday, going 0-for-3 with a walk and a run scored, also making a nice running catch in left field to rob the A's Matt Chapman of a hit in the second inning of a 3-2 Mariners loss.
Ichiro has a slash line of .311/.355/.402 in 2,651 games over 18 years in the Majors. His 3,089 hits are the most of any active player and rank 22nd on the all-time list. He's sixth on the all-time singles list with 2,514 and 35th in stolen bases at 509. He set the MLB single-season record for hits with 262 in 2004, and his 10 straight 200-hit seasons is the longest streak in Major League history.
The slender outfielder was a 10-time American League All-Star and a 10-time AL Gold Glove Award winner for the Mariners in his first stint in Seattle, winning AL Rookie of the Year Award and the AL Most Valuable Player Award in 2001, his first season after coming over from Japan.
Ichiro also had 1,278 hits and a batting average of .353 in nine seasons for the Orix BlueWave before becoming one of the first Japanese position players to sign with an MLB team.
The Mariners traded Ichiro to the Yankees midway through the 2012 season, and he played 2 1/2 seasons in New York before signing with the Marlins for three years from 2015-17, then coming full circle with Seattle this spring.
"The two of us, Ichiro and the Mariners, are linked together in perpetuity," Dipoto said. "And we want it to be that way."
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.