BY Masa Niwa 08:29PM 03/21/2019

To play a final time in Japan kept Ichiro going

He never said the word retirement — until March 10, when Ichiro told Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto. It was worth the wait: A glorious send-off, and two wins.

Once the face of the franchise. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

TOKYO — He had left the field a while earlier. The fans stayed in Tokyo Dome, chanting his name: Ee-chi-ro! Ee-chi-ro!

It was past 11 pm.

Ichiro was talking to Seattle’s local media in the bullpen behind the clubhouse. Teammates attended the press conference, taking pictures and videos behind the reporters. A’s manager Bob Melvin, who managed the Mariners in 2003 and 2004, showed up after his own press conference.

Felix Hernandez, a teammate for many years (2005-12, 2018-19), was by the door to the bullpen. He was emotional.

The demands of the crowd grew louder. Fans wanted to see the legend one last time. They made sure Ichiro heard.

After speaking to the American reporters, Ichiro rushed onto the field, taking a curtain call. Some were screaming, others crying.

When Ichiro started going around the field from the third base side, some teammates followed him, holding smart phones.

“This is amazing, this is cool! He deserves this,” said 2B Dee Gordon, who cried when Ichiro was replaced in the eighth inning of a game the Mariners would win in 12 innings, 5-4 (box), sweeping the short series with Oakland.

Said Ichiro: “After seeing fans’ reaction like that, now, I have nothing to regret.”

In the middle of the second inning of the second game, the news broke. Ichiro told the Mariners he would retire as a player and would have a press conference after the game.

It shook Japan.

Ichiro batted for the second time in the fourth inning. The fans knew what was happening. The standing ovation they gave Ichiro was louder, longer and more emotional than ever.

In the eighth inning of a 4-4 tie, with a runner on second and two outs,  Ichiro came to the plate. His 10,732th at-bat in MLB could be his last, and could help win the game.

No one had left the stadium. Nobody wanted to miss his last at-bat. His name was chanted again. More pictures and videos.

Ichiro hit a soft grounder and ran hard. It would be close.

Did he beat the throw? Momentarily, silence fell.

The first base umpire heard the ball hit the glove before Ichiro reached the base.

Life often doesn’t go the way you want.

To start the bottom of the eighth, Ichiro, who started his second game in a row, and the Mariners took the field. But manager Scott Servais took Ichiro out in order to provide another moment.

This was it.

When Ichiro jogged toward the dugout, players waited for him near the third base line. He was greeted by hearty hugs. A’s players also stood and applauded.

New Mariners pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, who started his first MLB game in his homeland, dreamed as a boy of playing with Ichiro. He was in tears, sobbing briefly on Ichiro’s shoulder as they embraced.

Ken Griffey Jr. waited for Ichiro in the dugout. He was Ichiro’s boyhood hero, and why Ichiro wanted to play for the Mariners. Griffey wanted to be there and see his friend’s final moments on the field.

It was 11:55 p.m. when Ichiro showed up for a press conference for Japanese media, a crowd of more than 150.

During the 85 minute-press conference, he revealed a behind-the-scenes story.

On March 10, after he played a couple of innings of a spring training game in Peoria, he went back to the clubhouse. It was nothing strange. Then he went upstairs to the executive offices, where he had never been. He met general manager Jerry Dipoto.

That day, Ichiro made up his mind.

The goal: To go out in Japan

When Ichiro was introduced ahead of the Mariners’ first exhibition game against the Yomiuri Giants Sunday, fans offered a huge ovation. They had not seen him play in Japan since the Mariners’ trip here in 2012.

They took pictures and video, screaming and shouting his name.

 

After the ceremonies were over, Ichiro jogged along the third base line toward left field by himself. Suddenly, he sprinted to center field. It was just a warm-up exercise. However, the audience erupted into wild cheers.

Nobody but Ichiro was on the field.

It looked like his center stage. Other players hesitated to go to the field. They did not want to interrupt the moment between Ichiro and fans.

After the game, Ichiro said simply, “Fans were the best!” It was long-awaited moment for Ichiro too.

A year ago at spring training, the Mariners discussed how to handle their crowded outfield situation.

Ben Gamel, who strained his oblique early in camp, was about to come back from the disabled list, joining Mitch Haniger, Guillermo Heredia, Dee Gordon and Ichiro.

Five outfielders for three spots. One player had to go.

Ichiro would have seemed the odd man out, since the Mariners signed him March 7 after Gamel was injured. Also, Ichiro was struggling in his effort to prove people wrong. His time with the Mariners was running out.

It was not that simple. Optioned to Triple-A Tacoma was Heredia, with a .310 average and two home runs over 37 plate appearances. Ichiro was batting .212 at the time.

How come? The Mariners had different plans for Ichiro. They need more time to work out details.

The club sought to shift Ichiro into a front office role as a special assistant to the chairman, then let him return to the field when MLB rosters expanded Sept. 1 from 25 to 40 players.

The league office was not impressed, citing a rule that says once a player moves into a front office, he cannot come back as a player in the same year. But he was permitted to be in uniform, in the clubhouse and be in pregame workouts.

Ichiro explained at that time, “During the game I will be doing the same preparations I’ve been doing the entire time. Nothing is going to change for me that I did as a player.”

It was unique treatment for a unique player. But for what?

It was all about coming back in 2019.

The move to special assistant was not closing the door to future opportunities, and neither were the Mariners. They supported the idea.

“We don’t suspect this closes the book on Ichiro’s career as a player, and potentially a player with the Mariners,” Dipoto said.

Playing in Tokyo was the goal.

“It’s so far off, but it would be a big motivation to know that,” Ichiro said.

The long wait between games

About four months after the end of the season and nine months after the last game Ichiro played, he reported to camp in better shape than anyone on the roster. He had a team-low seven percent body fat.

How did that happen?

He did what he had been doing the previous 17 years. His fitness routine was the same.

When Ichiro was taking batting practice, coaches were counting how many balls he hit into the stands. Although not permitted to be in the dugout, Ichiro at a game in Yankee Stadium put on dark glasses, a fake mustache and a gray hoodie and sat in the middle of the bench.

At Safeco, he took batting practice in the indoor cage and worked out on his personal training machines, which were designed for him. He was not laying on the couch and watching a game on TV.

At the end of the season,  “I did everything I could. I am a little tired. I need some rest,”  he said. “Being exhausted every day was my goal. I accomplished that.”

People still doubted his ability. At 45, how he can get back the feel?

He described how he looked at the task:  “If there are two options, one is people had done it before, the other is people had never done it before. I choose the latter.”

In addition, he told Japanese media when the Mariners’ first official workout day ended, “I always want to let people down; those who say irresponsible opinions without much thought.”

From day one in spring training, Ichiro tried to prove people wrong.

“Ichi is ready to go,” manager Scott Servais said. “He takes it as serious as anybody in that room, and that has allowed him to keep playing all these years. He runs around and has as much energy, if not more, than the rest of the guys. That’s just how he’s wired.”

Ichiro had a good spring start. In his in first game, he had a single, in the second stole a base. Was he trying to impress?

“Why not?”  Ichiro said.

But that production was nearly it. His only other hit came March 1 against Brewers. He was 2-for-25 in the Cactus League, with three walks and nine strikeouts. He was 0-for-6 in the two exhibition games against the Yomiuri Giants, and 0-for-5 with a walk in the two games against the A’s.

During a press conference Saturday, even Ichiro said,  “I didn’t do well during spring training. Based on that, I shouldn’t be here. But fortunately, I am Japanese. So I am at advantage in that sense, right?”

Then he insisted, “Based on my past experiences after 2004 — the year after my 262 hits — I had a hit at every game (in spring training) but during that season I struggled a lot. On the other hand, I had 26 at-bats with no hits in another spring training, the season I achieved 200 hits.

“I learned from those experiences you can never predict what will happen, based on spring training.”

In other words, he was not ready to hang it up. Until he was.

Ichiro bristled a bit Saturday when asked about retirement.

“When would I know? I have no idea when I would know that. I’m not used to questions like this.”

He was insisting he had gas left in the tank. But he knew better.

“I am back in Japan, my favorite place, and I have an opportunity to play here,” he said.  “I will renew my resolve, refresh myself and I am going to put my utmost into my play.”

Masa Niwa graduated from Rikkyo University and Indiana State University. He has  worked  for various media outlets in Japan, including NHK, Sankei Sports and Nikkei Newspapers,  for more than 20 years. He lives in Seattle and was in Japan for the Mariners-A’s series that opened the MLB season.


YourThoughts

  • Tian Biao

    great read, thanks! now that he’s officially retired we can better appreciate his career. one of the best, most unique and interesting characters in Seattle sports. frustrating, too, at times, but . . . yeah. Ichiro. I hope he finds peace in retirement.

    • art thiel

      What he does in retirement remains the great mystery. He has shown little fit for coaching/managing, but that could change. He is such an obsessive about the game, it would seem to be a transition more difficult than most among retiring players.

  • Steed

    Easily the greatest ever Mariner right behind Junior, and one of the all time greatest players ever.

    Un informed people thought that Ichiro hanging around with the team last season was about “saving face”, as if someone who cared about that would want to hang around the team without playing, like some kind of glorified clubhouse guy. The idea is laughable.
    Maybe all they know about Japan is from watching “Shogun” . Ichiro never cared about that at all. It was about giving him a chance to retire in Japan, and make a gradual transition into the rest of his life.

    For some reason, some local media and people like bonehead Buhner resented Ichiro. Buhner saying he would “vomit” if the M’s gave Ichiro another contract was a low point, for Buhner that is.

    Most people would be happy if they had a career with half as many MLB accomplishments as Ichiro has. And he started in MLB at age 27! That is unique and incredible, just like Ichiro.

    Watashitachi wa itsumo anata o aishimasu, Ichiro!

    • art thiel

      Look at you, Steed — fluent in two.

      Then you probably know the values difference between Japanese players and U.S. players (I didn’t see the Buhner vomit comment). In Japan, much importance is placed by salarymen in showing up to work every day, regardless. It honors the employer. It’s part of why Ichiro didn’t risk his health by diving for sinking liners or drives into walls.

      In America, many value going all out, every time, regardless of consequences, including the loss of the player’s entire season to injury.

      My view is that neither is right nor wrong, merely reflective of cultural values. But when both play out on the same team, some Americans will interpret Ichiro’s way as selfish. I don’t agree, but I see why it’s said.

  • jafabian

    Ichiro has a busy schedule ahead of him. There’s going to be the Mariners HOF induction, Washington Sports HOF induction, Baseball HOF induction and then having a statue outside of Safe—oops…T-Mobile Park next to Junior and Edgar. (We all know Gar is gonna get one.) Will probably raise the 12th Man flag and get a Golden Scarf as well. Some well deserved honors.

    What an amazing trip this was for the team. They got to experience a new culture, see where two of their teammates were from and witness a bit of history. Loved seeing Junior with the team and seeing former players such as Kaz Sasaki, Shiggy and Kenji. Kenji told Shannon Drayer he’s actually returned to Seattle several times and sat behind home plate but he never told anyone among the Mariners staff. A bit of trivia: Ichiro’s first game was against the A’s which the M’s won 5-4. His last game was against the same team with the same score. Also love that Ichiro wanted to reunite with the Mariners. Something that’s not seen very often among today’s athletes.

    • art thiel

      Wow. You really took it all in. Glad you enjoyed.

      You should have taken the trip.

      • jafabian

        Tokyo is on my bucket list of travel destinations but I doubt I could have gotten a ticket. Ichiro is too much of an icon over there.