Ichiro arrives in stellar shape, focused on Tokyo

February 16th, 2019

PEORIA, Ariz. -- While Mariners fans and baseball followers across the globe ponder whether the ageless can and will play beyond Seattle's two-game Opening Series in Tokyo next month, the man himself prefers not to let his mind venture that far down the road.

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Ichiro has reached a point where few ballplayers have dared to dream, competing for a roster spot at age 45 for the franchise that gave him his first shot in the Major Leagues in 2001. But there's a reason he checked in after Mariners physicals this weekend with the lowest body fat of any player in camp at 7 percent.

The laser focus that has driven Ichiro throughout his career now keeps him zeroed in on getting to Japan for those two games against the A's on March 20-21, an opportunity general manager Jerry Dipoto has promised, as long as he proves he's healthy this spring.

Beyond that?

"I think a 45-year-old baseball player really shouldn't be thinking about the future," Ichiro said through long-time interpreter Allen Turner after the Mariners' first full-squad workout of the spring on Saturday. "It's about today. I'm very satisfied with today and how it went. I'm just going to take it day by day."

Ichiro's combined hit total of 4,367 over 27 seasons between Japan and MLB is the most of any player in history. He's not ready to stop yet, though the Mariners seem unlikely to extend his career beyond the Tokyo series given they've committed this season to building for the future with young players.

Ichiro certainly doesn't fit that mold, but Dipoto's respect for his place in the history of the Mariners and the game of baseball led him to offer the venerable veteran a job as "assistant to the chairman" last year, so Ichiro could finish the final five months of the season working out with the club and remaining part of the team even after he was removed from the 40-man roster.

At that time, the Mariners let Ichiro know he'd be welcome to return to Spring Training this year and compete again for a roster spot and the opportunity to play in Tokyo to start the season. Ichiro trained diligently with the team the remainder of the season, took 2-3 days off after it ended and then resumed working out at the level he knew it would take for his body to compete at his age.

"It's just about doing the best you can and then doing that over and over," Ichiro said of his training methods. "Whatever that is, you get to your limit and you just do that over and over. That's how I think you can do that."

That regimen has allowed the 2001 American League MVP to come full circle. He believes the Mariners' uniform will be the last one he wears as a ballplayer, and he treasured the chance to suit up again Saturday and take his place in workouts and the batting cage.

"Going through what I experienced last year and being able to put on the Seattle Mariners uniform as a player, being here the first day, it's just amazing," he said. "It's just great. I felt that today."

What he couldn't do was say exactly how much that uniform and the city of Seattle mean to him. He stopped and started after getting that question, his eyes appearing to tear up, before simply telling Turner there was no easy answer.

"If I said the reasons, I don't want it to come off as a small or light reason, something that is not serious," he said. "That's how much I think it's better off not to say. I want it to mean a lot. I don't think words can say how I feel."

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Mariners manager Scott Servais, only six years older than Ichiro at 51, marvels at the fitness and preparation that allows the veteran outfielder to even contend for a Major League roster spot.

"It's unbelievable," Servais said. "He takes it as serious as anybody in that room. That's what has allowed him to keep playing all these years. He'll be out there running around and have as much energy, if not more, than the rest of the guys. It's just how he's wired.

"We'll get him ready to go. He's always ready. He's working out almost every day of the year. It's just what makes Ichiro, Ichiro. He'll be a great example for our young players. Our young guys are going to be blown away, like, 'This guy is how old? How long has he been doing this?' That's why he's the greatest. He's awesome."

Ichiro acknowledged he felt a little pang when talking with three-time All-Star outfielder at the batting cage and learning the veteran is still only 31.

"He's 14 years younger than me," Ichiro said. "I was pretty shocked about that."

Indeed, Ichiro is pretty much in a class of his own. And he's not ready to graduate just yet.

As his media session came to an end, Ichiro was asked if his goal was still to play until he's 50?

"At least," he said with a sly smile.