PEORIA, Ariz. – Over his 11-plus years in Seattle, we saw Ichiro in many guises and personas – philosophical Ichiro, stoic Ichiro, standoffish Ichiro, sarcastic Ichiro, Zen master Ichiro.
On Wednesday, in his return to the Mariners, a new Ichiro revealed itself during a sometimes emotional news conference to announce his signing of a one-year, major-league contract.
This was a softer, more sentimental Ichiro, one who at age 44 recognizes that his role in the game has changed irrevocably. He joked about his teammates now being the age his children would be if he had any. There was a wistfulness and even vulnerability we had not seen before, mixed in with an eagerness to pass on his accumulated wisdom before he steps away from the game for good.
Not that he sees that day in the near future, mind you.
“I think everybody hears I want to play until I’m 50,” he said, speaking through interpreter Allen Turner. “I want to make sure everybody understands I always say, at least 50.”
His eyes glistening at times, Ichiro talked about how much it meant to return to the Mariners, where he had his greatest seasons in MLB. According to reports, he will earn a base salary of $750,000 with a chance to earn $2 million with incentives.
“Somewhere deep inside, I wanted to return and wear the uniform again,” he said.
Ichiro talked of the tug on his heart strings he always felt when he flew back into Seattle, where he maintained a home even after he left to play for the Yankees and Marlins.
“From my window I’d see Safeco Field, and it was home,” he said. “It wasn’t really home, but it was home to me. It was such a close place to me, but it was far because I was in a distant place. For me to come back and be here again – sometimes you take things for granted. You know it’s there, and it’s something that’s special, but when you go away and come back, it makes it even more special.”
No longer, however, can Ichiro be penciled into the lineup every day with the automatic assumption he’ll hit .300, bang out 200 hits, make the All-Star team and win a Gold Glove, as was the case every year from 2001 to 2010 in his first Mariners stint. In fact, it’s a major question how much production he has to offer. But Ichiro says he comes back humbled from the experience of becoming a part-time player, no longer able to assume every day he was going to play.
“After I went to New York, I had to go look at the lineup,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to play that day. I had experiences where I would be in the on-deck circle and a left-handed pitcher would come in, and I would have to sit back down. There were many times I struggled, and it was tough.
“But I was able to learn from those experiences, and I was able to adapt and be able to go out and perform even though the situations and atmospheres have changed. All those things I went through have made me who I am today, able to adapt to whatever comes my way.”
After the news conference, Mariners manager Scott Servais gave the first hint of how he plans to use Ichiro, whose arrival was necessitated by an oblique injury expected to sideline left fielder Ben Gamel four to six weeks. Servais indicated that Ichiro’s acquisition is not merely ceremonial. He’s going to be a main option, along with Guillermo Heredia, to fill in for Gamel in left field. Servais said he expects Ichiro – who will make his first appearance in uniform Thursday – to play four or five days a week when the season begins.
“I don’t think it’s going to be seven days a week, but we’ll get him out there,” Servais said. “I believe he can help us. Our people making the decisions on the roster believe he can help us, so we’ll give it a shot.”
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto and Ichiro’s agent, John Boggs, had talked intermittently, at times intensively, throughout the offseason about a deal, to the point that Dipoto said he felt he was talking more to Boggs than his wife. But nothing came of it, and as spring training hit its third week, with Ichiro one of many prominent free agents still unsigned, it looked like he might have to return to Japan to continue his career. Yet Boggs persevered.
“Early on, we had some discussions that were very, very encouraging, but then as the offseason started to play out, things started to change,” Boggs said.
However, they changed abruptly once again when Gamel got hurt, and this time, the sides were able to forge a deal quickly.
“We feel like it’s a good move for us, notably because of what Ichiro brings to us on the field but also what he brings to us in the clubhouse,” Dipoto said, noting how much he can help Seattle’s young outfielders as well as converted infielder Dee Gordon.
That leadership role is one that Ichiro sounded eager to embrace.
“In 2001, when I first came over, I was really only worried about myself, because I knew that if I didn’t perform, I wasn’t going to be around,” he said. “So I only had that time to really worry about me and think about what I needed to do. It’s been 17 years since then. I still have things I want to do, I want to accomplish, as a player. But what’s different for me today, I’m really thinking about this year, what the Seattle Mariners need and what I can do to help. That’s what I want to do. I want to be able to help the Seattle Mariners.
“I want to give it all. Everything that I’ve gained, everything I’ve done in my career, I want to just give it all right here in Seattle.”
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