Tokyo Dome will be 'shaking' for Ichiro
Japanese legend set to play in Opening Series vs. Athletics
PEORIA, Ariz. -- As 30 Mariners players boarded a charter flight to Tokyo on Thursday, most were embarking on their first trip to Japan and looking forward to a new experience. But for Ichiro Suzuki and Yusei Kikuchi, this is more than just an intriguing journey to play baseball.
For the Mariners' two Japanese players, this is a homecoming of historic significance to their native land. It is Ichiro’s last stand in the place where his Hall of Fame career began 27 years ago, and it's Kikuchi’s first chance to play a Major League game with his childhood hero, happening only about an hour away from where he starred in his own Japanese professional career until five months ago.
When the Mariners and A’s meet in the two-game Opening Series in the Tokyo Dome next Wednesday and Thursday, Oakland will be the "home team." But without question, the Mariners will be the overwhelming crowd favorites, with the 45-year-old Ichiro expected in the Opening Day lineup and Kikuchi set to start the second game.
The man at the center of it all doesn’t yet want to talk about it much. As is Ichiro’s nature, he’s reluctant to make this about him -- not that there will be much chance of avoiding that once the Mariners touch down in Tokyo, where his face adorns billboards and where millions of fans have been following his every move half a world away throughout an 18-year Major League career.
Kikuchi grew up watching Ichiro play in Japan and remembers the excitement generated by Ichiro’s last return to Tokyo with the Mariners, in 2012.
“It was really crazy back then, but I think the Tokyo Dome is going to start shaking pretty much with all the fans when he comes back this time,” Kikuchi said via translator Justin Novak. “I can’t even imagine what is going to happen. I’m guessing there is going to be some sort of thing I’ve never seen before.”
Since 2001, Masa Niwa has covered Ichiro for the Tokyo-based Sankei Sports daily newspaper. He says the veteran outfielder has been the biggest sports icon in Japan for more than 25 years.
“This will be huge in the history of Japan,” said Niwa, who now makes his home in Seattle, but followed Ichiro to New York and Miami after he was traded by the Mariners in 2012. “All the Japanese fans have been watching Ichiro, like Yusei Kikuchi -- he has been watching him since [Ichiro] was 19 years old.
“The fans know the situation of what is going on. Nobody knows what will happen after this, but they want to enjoy the party. This could be his last time playing in Japan, as long as he’s saying he’s not going to play for a Japanese team, and everybody knows that.”
The Mariners have promised only that Ichiro will play in the two games in Japan, when rosters are allowed to be at 28 players. When the final cuts need to be made to 25 for the home opener back in Seattle on March 28 against the Red Sox, it seems unlikely he’ll be kept on a team that is rebuilding around younger players.
Yet it’s hard to imagine a final game for a man who has played in 3,602 contests between Japan and MLB over 27 seasons, amassing 4,367 hits. So for now, the Mariners are focused on celebrating this journey with Ichiro and curious to see how a player who is followed by dozens of Japanese journalists every day in the U.S. is treated in his homeland.
“That’s one of the things I’m most eager to see, watching them embrace him,” said third baseman Ryon Healy, who is making his first trip to Tokyo. “That’s going to be special.”
“I think he’s looking forward to it and is excited about the opportunity to go back and play in Japan with a Mariners uniform on,” said manager Scott Servais. “It’ll be great for everybody around the team to see that unfold. He’s been through so much in his career. I can only imagine what it was like his first year [in Seattle], with all the eyes on him. Well, all the eyes are still on him. It’s an unbelievable career and run he’s had. Our guys are looking forward to it and I know he is as well.”
Outfielder Mitch Haniger visited Japan in November as part of the MLB All-Star Tour and witnessed firsthand the fervor of Japanese fans, who sing and chant during games much like soccer crowds in other countries.
“Honestly, I was shocked just to see some of the reaction for American players that came over,” Haniger said. “I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like for Ichiro. And I can’t even imagine what it’ll be like for him, coming back to that. It’s something we’re just going to have to wait and see and let it sink in, because I can’t even picture how they’ll react. But I know they’ll be going crazy.”