Ichiro Suzuki is coming home.
His major league contemporary Hideki Matsui, however, probably won’t be along for the ride.
The Seattle Mariners outfielder and 10-time MLB All-Star will be a part of the 2012 MLB Opening Series in Japan, which will pit the Mariners against the Oakland Athletics on March 28-29 at Tokyo Dome.
When the series was initially announced, it was thought Matsui, who starred for the Yomiuri Giants at the Big Egg from 1993-2002 and was the 2009 World Series MVP with the New York Yankees, might share top billing.
Matsui spent the 2011 season with the A’s, but it’s unlikely the free agent will re-sign with the team.
“It would add a lot of drama, obviously, with Matsui here with us like he was last year,” said Oakland manager Bob Melvin. “I think our direction is probably a little bit different right now. We’re probably going into a little bit of a retooling type of effort right now. Our model is probably going to give some at-bats to some younger guys that we really need to figure out whether our not they’re going to be players for us down the road.”
Matsui hit .251 with 12 home runs and 72 RBIs in 141 games with Oakland last season.
“We enjoyed having him,” Melvin said. “I don’t rule anything out, you never know where things are going to go, but at this point in time we’re probably moving in a little different direction, unfortunately.”
Unlike Ichiro, Matsui has already participated in a major-league series in Japan. He was a member of the 2004 New York Yankees team that opened the season at Tokyo Dome against the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Ichiro and the Mariners, who were managed by Melvin at the time, were scheduled to face the A’s in Tokyo to open the 2003 season. That series was cancelled for security reasons after the U.S. invaded Iraq.
He returns to Japan on the heels of his worst season in the majors. Ichiro posted a career-low .272 batting average in 2011, the first sub-.300 year of his MLB career, and recorded 184 hits to finish with fewer than 200 for the first time.
“Ichiro is going to be fine, you can ask these two guys,” said former Mariners star and special consultant to the team Ken Griffey Jr., referring to Melvin and Wedge. “If a guy had 184 hits they wouldn’t be complaining. But you are looking at a guy who is a special athlete. He had one hiccup in his career and come this time next year we won’t even be talking about this. He is going to come into this season determined and with a little fire.”
Prior to facing each other to start the 2012 MLB campaign, the Mariners and A’s will face the NPB’s Giants and Hanshin Tigers in a exhibition games on March 25 and 26.
“I’m really happy that we’re playing exhibition games,” said Seattle manager Eric Wedge. “When you come this far and have the opportunity to play teams over here in Japan as well as play Major League Baseball teams over here, we’ve got the best of both worlds.”
Melvin would’ve already had that experience had the 2003 series not been called off.
“Obviously, we’re real excited about coming here,” Melvin said. “Little irony for me personally, in that in 2003 I was supposed to be here in charge of Eric’s team, but unfortunately it got canceled. We understood the reasons for it. But as an organization and representative of Major League Baseball, we were very excited about being potentially able to come.
“So now being able to come and play the Mariners is very special for us.”