Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Ichiro ahead of curve as usual in new position for Mariners

by Jason Coskrey

Ichiro Suzuki saw Shohei Ohtani coming.

Prior to Friday’s game between the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels, Ichiro spied Ohtani in the reflection of one of his teammates’ sunglasses, as the younger player came over to greet him. Just as Ohtani arrived and took off his hat, Ichiro suddenly jogged off in the opposite direction, before turning and laughing at the small prank he’d pulled as Ohtani jogged after him.

That’s how Ichiro essentially spent the best years of his otherworldly playing career: constantly one step ahead of everybody else.

Perhaps he still is in a way. Where nearly everyone saw his recent move to a role in the Seattle front office as essentially retirement, Ichiro is already plotting a return to the field in 2019.

Ichiro won’t play again in 2018 and will finish out the season as the special assistant to the chairman, in a sort of limbo between being player and coach. It’s an arrangement where everyone can win. The club keeps Ichiro around and his teammates can pick his brain and benefit from his vast knowledge. Meanwhile Ichiro will continue practicing and working toward trying to squeeze one more opening day out of his career.

“I think the new role has a chance to be a success, and the key is that Ichiro seems to be buying into it,” longtime Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone said in an email to The Japan Times. “If he were at all resentful or resistant, it would be a recipe for failure, but he is saying all the right things and appears to be embracing it. There’s no question that the players revere Ichiro and he does have lots of wisdom to pass along. Whether or not that exchange will actually take place remains to be seen.

“The most interesting aspect of his new job is that he is still preparing as a player, and I think there is no doubt whatsoever that he is pushing towards a goal of playing in Japan next year when the Mariners open the season.”

Whether or not Ichiro makes it back, his legacy is secure. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer who’ll go down as one of the greatest hitters in two leagues and one of the most dynamic defensive outfielders the game has ever seen.

“I think if you had a survey of the top baseball players in history in Japan, I think top five, Ichiro would be in there with (Shigeo) Nagashima and (Sadaharu) Oh,” said Robert Whiting, the best-selling author of the Japanese baseball book “You Gotta have Wa.”

His legend is similarly secure in Seattle, where he spent the majority of a long career that began with Orix in 1992.

“I think Ichiro definitely is in the upper echelon of Seattle sports figures, perhaps not at the very top rung with Ken Griffey Jr., Russell Wilson and (former University of Washington football coach) Don James, but very, very close,” Stone said.

“He will be remembered for the pure excitement and wonder he brought in his early years, particularly 2001, a great year for the Mariners with 116 wins. Unfortunately, there are still some fans who bought into the whispers that he was a ‘selfish’ player, which I dismiss out of hand, and who resent the fact that he never gave interviews in English. But in general I think he’s going to be a player for whom his stature grows as time goes by.”

If Ichiro does manage to make it back, Japanese fans might get one final chance to see him in action, with the Mariners scheduled to open the 2019 season at Tokyo Dome against the Oakland A’s.

“I’m just imagining a scenario where he comes back next year and plays the first week or something, plays the games in Japan and retires officially,” Whiting said.

It’s possible that’s all part of Ichiro’s plan.