Ichiro. What's next?

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Ichiro. What's next?

Postby T15D23 » Tue Mar 12, 2019 10:38 pm

Sensitive times in Seattle, as Ichiro and the Mariners ponder what’s next
Ken Rosenthal


A normal​ player would​ understand​ it​ was time,​ understand the meaning of​ his​ dismal start in​ spring training,​ understand that​​ at age 45, there is no shame in saying goodbye.

But if Ichiro were normal, he wouldn’t be Ichiro.

He has been at this for 27 seasons, nine in Japan, 18 in the majors. He leads a famously regimented lifestyle, centered entirely on baseball. He knows nothing else, and a disturbing story in ESPN The Magazine a little more than a year ago detailed how he is “haunted by the life he can’t escape.”

The last thing anyone wants to see is Ichiro’s Hall of Fame career finish uncomfortably, with the Mariners telling him, against his wishes, “no more.” But superstar athletes often lack the self-awareness to recognize the end is near. Their boundless confidence is what helped make them great. And Ichiro exists at the extreme end of the extreme.

He has spoken of playing until he is at least 50. And when the Mariners announced his transition to a front-office role last May, he made a point of saying he was not retiring. He continued to work out with the team. The only difference was that he was not in the dugout during games.

“When I start using a cane, that’s a time that I think I should retire,” he said.

The Mariners suggest nothing to the contrary, at least not publicly. They signed Ichiro to a minor-league contract on Jan. 24, creating a path for him to be on their expanded 28-man roster for the opening two games in Japan on March 20-21. Earlier in the offseason, GM Jerry Dipoto had said he would not predetermine anything else.

An athlete’s decision to retire usually is not appropriate for public debate; the decision is intensely personal and should belong to the athlete and athlete alone. Ichiro, a player of immense dignity and historic accomplishment, warrants particular respect. But even if he views retirement as a form of defeat, an acceptance of the unacceptable, he surely must know no player lasts forever.

He is 2-for-23 this spring, with seven strikeouts and three walks. He batted only .205 with a .460 OPS in 47 plate appearances while filling in for the injured Ben Gamel early last season. He still moves well, still has a great arm. But if he saw what others were seeing, this would be an easy decision. He would announce the end of his playing career at the conclusion of the Mariners’ series in Japan, then return to Seattle for a hero’s farewell.

Maybe Ichiro will surprise us all and do just that. But as usual, he is not revealing his intentions. And the Mariners are keeping their thoughts private, out of respect for one of the game’s all-time greats.

The whole thing is just a little sensitive.

It is not out of the question that Ichiro will rationalize his offensive performance this spring. He is playing for the first time in 10 months. He might simply need to find his rhythm and timing. He never has been Mr. March, as evidenced by his career .661 OPS in spring training and .757 OPS in the regular season.

It is possible as well to make a case for the Mariners keeping him. The team, in the middle of a rebuilding program, shows no intention of competing for a postseason berth in 2019 and would prefer to trade designated hitter Edwin Encarnación and outfielder Jay Bruce sooner rather than later.

The projected starting outfield is Mitch Haniger in right, Mallex Smith in center and Domingo Santana in left, with Bruce also getting at-bats. A spot on the bench would open once the Mariners moved Bruce.

If Ichiro made the team as a fifth outfielder, he would not cripple the payroll with his $750,000 salary, a relative pittance by major-league standards. Nor would he block the ascents of younger players. While prospects Braden Bishop, Jake Fraley and Kyle Lewis all have performed well this spring, only Bishop, 25, is remotely close to the majors, and he has yet to play above Double-A.

At this point, friends say Ichiro has no interest in playing for any major-league team but Seattle, and he has said he will not play again in Japan. He is still popular with teammates, and still brings a certain presence — Dipoto has referred to him as a “Dalai Lama” in the clubhouse. He also would remain a curiosity for fans who otherwise might lose interest in the club, though some surely would view him as something of a public relations facade.

Which, in fairness to the club, raises a series of questions.

How long should the Mariners be obligated to Ichiro? His non-playing arrangement after the team released him last season gave him a sense of purpose, a reason to prepare for 2019. But should even that arrangement continue in perpetuity? When does it all end?

In January, Dipoto told reporters with a smile, “If he rolls out in Tokyo and gets seven hits in two games, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll play a third game.” If Ichiro were a normal player, he might view such a performance as a perfect ending, much like Derek Jeter’s walk-off single in his final at-bat at Yankee Stadium in 2014. But Ichiro being Ichiro, he might be more likely to look at it as a new beginning.

“I believe he might die if he doesn’t keep playing,” Mariners second baseman Dee Gordon told ESPN The Magazine. “What is Ichiro gonna do if he doesn’t play baseball?”

Eventually, he must find an answer, difficult as it might be. Long live Ichiro, however this all plays out, however his career finally ends.
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