BY Art Thiel 05:48PM 05/03/2018

Thiel: Ichiro, Mariners and the saving of face

Some in Mariners ownership wanted Ichiro to stay for the season, but the baseball realists prevailed. Then came an exit ramp of equal parts grace and awkwardness.

Ichiro made it to Opening Day 2018, but not much farther. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

It sure beats driving away in the middle of night while telling no one, as did Ken Griffey Jr.  did with the Mariners in 2010, ending unceremoniously his second tour of duty. But it was definitely not as poignant and dramatic as Marshawn Lynch tweeting a photo of his cleats hanging from a wire during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl in 2016, symbolizing his retirement from the Seahawks (but not, as it turns out, from football).

Exits for sports icons are hard. Athletes rarely want to admit it’s time, and most fans, at least those more sentimental than pragmatic, are even more resistant.

The awkwardness was compounded for Ichiro, who comes from a people who place the saving of face as a cultural imperative.

What the Seattle Mariners did Thursday was their best attempt at saving of face for a legend who could no longer play at the level to which he was accustomed. He had nine singles in 44 at-bats (.205 average) and had some trouble tracking fly balls.

To cut him as they would any other unproductive veteran was undignified. Sending him down to the minors was even more unconscionable. And anyone who read the profile in March done by Wright Thompson in ESPN The Magazine, which would have to include every staffer in the Mariners’ front office, would be at least slightly fearful for his welfare were he to be disconnected completely from Major League Baseball. As much as any athlete I have known, Ichiro’s identity is almost completely wrapped in his obsession for his sport.

Since nothing in Thursday’s announcement mentioned retirement, the Mariners made up a job in order to help him make a transition to . . . whatever.

Ichiro’s agent, John Boggs, campaigned for months to get Ichiro hired by the Mariners. They did so March 7 because of spring training injuries to outfielders. But the youngsters are healthy now, and there is no roster room for Ichiro, which is not the same as the dreaded R-word. Boggs told The Athletic, “He is not retiring. He’s taking on a different role for 2018, and 2019 has yet to evolve.”

Ichiro is now a special assistant to Mariners chairman John Stanton, whatever that may mean. General manager Jerry Dipoto said in a statement that the change was about the club’s desire to “capture all of the value that Ichiro brings to this team off the field.” But they already have coaches for every position and task, and a clubhouse full of veteran leaders.

Said Dipoto: “While it will evolve over time, the key is that Ichiro’s presence in our clubhouse and with our players and staff improves our opportunity to win games.”

Well, maybe. In his first tour with the Mariners from 2001 to 2012, when he made a compelling argument for entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot, Ichiro seemed more of an independent contractor than a card-playing, towel-snapping member of the team.

Time changes things, of course. This 44-year-old version of Ichiro is more affable and more tolerant of the U.S. players’ penchant to take the game, at least in part, as amusement and not obsession.

“I’ve always been strict with myself,” he told me March 28, the day before the season opener. “In my early years, I was also strict with my teammates. I wanted them to do it this way or that way.

“Now, some of these guys could be my kid’s age. I look at them and don’t let anything really bother me. I just kind of enjoy it now, actually, and how they do things.”

Apparently, this group of “kids” seems to be enjoying the less over-wrought iteration of Ee-chee.

In fact, Dipoto, meeting media at Safeco field at mid-afternoon Thursday, likened Ichiro to the Dalai Lama, describing how on team flights young players surround him at his seat.

“It’s almost like they’re waiting for him to opine from the mountaintop,” he said.

For a team whose cap symbol is a trident from Greek mythology, I guess it’s better to substitute the Oracle at Delphi. But when a team is 16 years gone from the playoffs, no myth, talisman, parable or incantation is beyond consideration.

Dipoto had never met Ichiro until he arrived at spring training in Arizona to join the team.

“He had more presence than any other baseball player I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve been in the game close to 30 years,” he said. “I’ve never met one quite like Ichiro.

“To keep him part of the organization is critical. The Mariners and Ichiro are linked together into perpetuity.”

What that linkage looks like, on its first day, is a mystery. I’ve never heard or read of Ichiro addressing a post-playing career. Nor was it a topic Thursday because Dipoto went out of his way to say that that no decision has been made about Ichiro returning to play in 2019.

The Mariners open the 2019 MLB regular season in Tokyo with two games against Oakland. No one would be surprised to see Ichiro in a Mariners uniform.

A source with knowledge of Mariners ownership said that Nintendo of America, which has a 10 percent stake, urged the hiring of Ichiro, and wanted it to last the entire season. The Redmond-based video game giant was the team’s majority owner until selling most of its shares to minority owners led by Stanton in January 2016.

Nintendo’s roots in Japan and in saving baseball here with the 1992 purchase by CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi are reminders that Ichiro was the nation’s first personality to become a global pop-culture star. To Japan, he is more than a baseball player. His denouement is a matter of national esteem.

But to many Seattle baseball fans long removed from success, the indulging of an aging Ichiro was representative of the previous regime’s habit of pandering to the past. He was taking away space from a potentially more helpful youngster.

Finally, Dipoto, manager Scott Servais and other baseball people prevailed, likely emphasizing that an improving club can’t be taken seriously if a player is kept beyond his expiration date.

“This,” Dipoto said, “was a decision made in the best interests of winning games now.”

That argument was perhaps a threat to the Japanese imperative of saving face, as explained by Rochelle Kopp, managing principal from Japan Intercultural Consulting, in a  2010 essay:

 The desire to avoid causing loss of face for oneself, one’s organization, or for others can be said to be the motivation behind many things that Japanese organizations do that are puzzling to Americans.

For example, some Americans report that Japanese companies seem reluctant to admit mistakes or discuss problems publicly. Or that Japanese will avoid expressing disagreement with their boss, even if what the boss is proposing is something that they think is not a good idea. Or that Japanese stationed overseas will avoid criticizing the parent company even when, in the eyes of American employees, such criticism is clearly deserved. The persistent fear of loss of face is behind these otherwise inexplicable behaviors.

The instinct to preserve face is something so ingrained in Japanese culture that many Japanese are not aware that it influences their behavior. It’s not something that Japanese often talk about – it’s just that when it comes to the realm of face, the warning bells automatically start to flash.

The Mariners saw the flash and devised an exit ramp, equal parts grace and awkwardness, for Ichiro to stay in the game without playing the game. Where it goes is the guess of anyone, including Ichiro, but the notion of the primacy of winning had a good day in Seattle Thursday.


  • StephenBody

    Yes, by all means, let’s do the time-honored Seattle tradition of devaluing the career and contributions of athletes who made a major difference in the sports culture of this city. God forbid we should watch the transition of an icon, at the end of his career, without attributing motives of condescending charity to that life passage. It doesn’t fit our narrative, I guess, that one of our teams should have an idea for keeping a legend in house and allowing that person to continue to contribute in non-traditional ways. Why, it HAS TO be giving a geezer a busy-work assignment that will allow him to avoid humiliation. I have to hand it you you, though, genius that I know you to be, to complete the trifecta of team condescension, managerial impatience, and Japan’s observance of “saving face” and spin that into something tawdry and pathetic, in complete dismissal of Ichiro’s massive achievements. Go ahead and tell me how awfully wrong I am, now. I would expect nothing less from anyone enmeshed in Seattle’s weird-ass sports “culture”.

    • Steed

      I don’t understand the animosity towards Ichiro from some media and fans around here. Maybe the media resented him because he didn’t want to do interviews in English when he probably could have.

      I recall one fan complaining that Ichiro didn’t want to steal bases when the manager told him to.

      Ichiro is #1 all time in Mariner stolen bases, and #35 all time in baseball history.

      You are not wrong.

      • art thiel

        As I’ve written before, Ichiro was part of a culture clash. In Japan, a very high value is placed on showing up for work every day, It honors the company if you preserve your health. Here in the US, we value risking health by going all out on every effort, with little regard for consequence.

        Neither approach is wrong. Just different.

    • art thiel

      Don’t know about the time-honored tradition in SEA. All teams, all sports, all markets have seen career conclusions that lack the sappy Hollywood endings we seem to yearn for. Club circumstances and athlete ego are almost always combustible.

      The Mariners made a good-faith effort here. Hope it works.

  • Steed

    A little class goes a long way. There was no reason for the M’s to dump Ichiro weeks ago. A guy only retires once, and there is only one Ichiro. He gets to still hang around, but not play. Good job by the Mariners to let him transition like this.

    • Ed Norton

      Agree. I cannot see any downside to what the Mariners have just done for Ichiro. Also, the next time an Ohtani-like Japanese superstar is contemplating for which MLB team he wants to play, the Mariners treatment of Ichiro will make us more appealing.

      • Steed

        Yes. Exactly. Playing up here is already a hard sell. If players see the M’s treat a Hall of Famer like trash, why would they come here if they had another option?

        • art thiel

          I’m thinking the Ichiro case is a unique one-off for a player who has yet to come to grips with the R word.

      • art thiel

        I think it was a shrewd move, but no one can be sure he’ll like it or even handle those three hours in the clubhouse away from the action.

  • woofer

    “the Mariners made up a job in order to help him make a transition to . . . whatever.”

    The picture is a bit murky but if you look closely you can barely make out the shape of another bobblehead doll.

    • Steed

      There should be many more bobble heads for Ichiro, and lots of special commemorations and events.

      He is the 2nd greatest Mariner of all time, and one of the greatest baseball players in history. Team #1 all time in hits and steals, and #22 and #35 in ALL TIME MLB HISTORY in those categories. Yes, more bobbleheads!

      • art thiel

        Steed, my good man, a deep breath, please.

        Ichiro is OK. I want you to be too.

        • Steed

          I changed it to links. That was a little much, sorry.

    • art thiel

      Nah. Even I’m not that cynical.

  • Alan Harrison

    This is tough, Art, because you and I both watched Willie Mays stumble and flounder in the outfield for the Mets. We saw Steve Carlton do anything to latch on with any team, fighting his own legacy, to do something only his brain thought he could do, but that his body could not. And we winced while watching the last 4 years and 5 teams (including the M’s) of Rickey Henderson. There is something aching about watching the best in baseball lose their stuff because for the most part, it happens in a state of denial on the part of the All-Star. And this is no less aching and no less awkward, Japanese or not. Ichiro has been in that same state for the last several years. A special “off-ramp” is a nice gesture. A 3rd comeback, on the other hand, should that happen…well that would be like the 2nd year of Griffey, an unnecessary wince for us all.

    • Steed

      This gives him time to realize his career is over. They might give him an at bat in Japan just for old times sake, or maybe not. He does not accept that he has to retire. Mentally, he cannot grasp it. This is the Mariners doing the right thing to take care of the mental health of their second greatest player of all time.

      If you read the excellent ESPN article on Ichiro, you see that he is not normal at all. He literally has no life, no loves, no nothing but baseball. Zilch.

      Good for the Mariners for being gentle with him.

      • art thiel

        In the article, Ichiro says the very thing: “I’m not normal.” I agree that the job buys him time to explore, and not at the expense of a roster spot.

    • art thiel

      Unhitching after long success is tough for anyone. Look at all the rock bands from the 60s and 70s. Baseball is especially tough because it is daily, and the limits of age are more apparent.

      I join everyone in hoping he finds a passion the game’s management that is at least somewhat emotionally rewarding.

  • Matt712

    We were all wondering how the Ms would squirm out of that predicament of getting the young guys back on the field once they healed up. I’m not certain of how much ‘face’ this move is actually saving, but I’ll go along with it.

    On the other hand, I wonder, if this had happened a year earlier, what Influence Ichiro might’ve had on the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes. It’s not hard to imagine him in some kind of diplomatic/scouting capacity for Japanese talent moving forward.

    • art thiel

      There’s been reporting than Ohtani specifically passed on Seattle because he didn’t want to play in the shadow of Ichiro’s legacy.

  • coug73

    Ichiro, is completely the baseball samurai persona and may he find peace in his new life.

    • art thiel

      After the Thompson ESPN story, many hope the same thing.

  • Steed

    Reading the article about this nearly brought a tear to my eye. Art cries over a brother being drafted, while I find this involuntary and unusual end to the career of one of the greatest players of all time to be tear jerking.

    They are letting him take BP and hang around all he wants. Yes, he is taking BP still. He will eventually realize it’s over, but not yet. So the Mariners are being very careful with him and taking him off the field this way, so he can slowly get used to reality. I find it to be very moving. It’s an incredible amount of class for an organization that has shown little of it over it’s life time.

    • art thiel

      It’s a good way to look at it, Steed. It remains awkward, because it hasn’t been done, and no one, including Ichiro, will know how this works with him stuck in the clubhouse during games.

      I think the creative approach to try to save face is worthwhile.

  • Williec

    I’m out of the country so got a delayed read this morning of Greg Johns’ story, “Ichiro transitioning….” I sat right up and said to myself, “Classy, simply classy.”
    I think everybody knew this moment was going to be a touchy one. Reading between the lines of the last few weeks interviews with Dipoto and Servais, it seemed something interesting was brewing in regard to Ichiro’s place when everybody was back to outfield health. I’m glad nobody leaked it. This is a good read in all the commentaries around baseball.
    And, having had some concern about Dipoto’s ease in to picking somebody up then tossing him out, I was worried he’d end this one abruptly, without ceremony or sense of the game’s history. This move tells me differently…and raises my regard for Dipoto.
    Can’t wait for Ichiro’s HOF induction.

    • Steed

      I was floored when I read that article. It is as obvious as can be that Ichiro cannot handle being retired, and they know it, so they are going to let him pretend for a while, and keep doing everything but play, if that is what he needs. Because that is the right thing to do for your Hall of Fame players, and it shows other players what kind of organization the M’s are. Now.

      • art thiel

        This is a humane approach, but Ichiro, for his own welfare, needs to figure out a course. It’s tough for anyone who believes he/she has much to contribute.

    • art thiel

      I don’t think anyone thought Ichiro would be tossed aside. This “job” is still a bit awkward — what if Ichiro is asked to take a side in a player/management disagreement? — but it is a fairly novel solution.

  • Chris Alexander

    My money is on the following series of things happening:

    1. Ichiro does what he does in the clubhouse, on the team plane, etc. without having to take the field which is a nice thing for the team to be able to take advantage of.

    2. Ichiro’s agent reaches out to the rest of the teams in the league to find out if there are any opportunities for Ichiro in 2019 but finds no takers.

    3. The M’s put him on the active roster for the first 2 games next season and let him make his final 2 MLB appearances in his home country.

    4. Ichiro retires to a standing ovation from his fellow countrymen.

    • Steed

      That would be so beautiful. Even with the screaming from certain fans that Ichiro getting a couple at bats would hurt the development of some other player.

      • art thiel

        I doubt two games will generate much throwing of vegetable matter.

    • art thiel

      That sounds about right. The only wrinkle is whether Ichiro can stand the daily three hours in the clubhouse with no one to talk to except guys going to the toilet.

    • Williec

      I’m liking the scenario. Also getting the concern about EeChee developing a fuller life.

  • Husky73

    As someone recently retired, and currently at a loss as to the horizon near and far, I wonder what Ichiro will do three years from now? Or five? Or ten? I ask myself the same questions.