Once the face of the Mariners, 25th man Ichiro returns home to Seattle

PEORIA, Ariz. – Age, in Japan, equals wisdom, and the 44-year-old man who has made it his life’s work to chase perfection in a game defined by failure spent Wednesday afternoon playing against type. This wasn’t humility, exactly, because no man who desires to play baseball past the age of 50 can be deemed humble. And it wasn’t fragility, either, because that connotes something breakable, and the man bends, bows, crooks, but never would he allow himself to break. No, this was vulnerability, an admission of fallibility, an acceptance of honesty, an acknowledgment of reality, and after a decade of walling himself off, creating this binary existence of personal failure or success, Ichiro Suzuki realized that for all of his idiosyncrasies and foibles there was a vast universe that did not rotate on an axis that shifted depending where he stood.

In front of him was a throng of people who have chronicled his every breath for two decades, and next to him was the handful of people who collaborated to keep him in the game, and behind him was a video board with his face and four words: WELCOME HOME ICHIRO SUZUKI. The Seattle Mariners, the franchise that brought Ichiro to Major League Baseball as a curiosity and saw him blossom into historic figure, had signed him to a one-year contract after he had spent the previous five in New York and Miami. And though this was a moment for baseball and the Mariners and fans to celebrate, the subtext of Ichiro’s words – the stuff beyond how happy he was to be back – offered insight into a man loath to offer much. He sounded wise.

The inciting incidents were two-fold: the degradation of Ichiro’s production and the constriction of the free-agent market. For months, Ichiro’s agent, John Boggs, had called and prodded and pestered teams in hopes of finding Ichiro a job after another season of middling numbers. Most didn’t bother responding. All the while, Ichiro was back home, staring at his baseball mortality, understanding that players who could be his kids were ready to take his job. And as much as this may have corroded his belief in the past, he found peace in his work, the day-after-day grind that makes baseball his life 360 days a year around 360 degrees of the planet.

“I was able to not let anything affect me,” Ichiro said. “That’s the kind of player and that’s the kind of person that I’ve always wanted to be. I think I found myself that way this year.”

It was, he said, the confluence of lessons taught him the past five years, when he went from untouchable in Seattle to respected but otherwise ordinary in New York and Miami. He knew his name would be in the lineup in Seattle. He checked it daily with the Yankees and Marlins. If a left-handed pitcher came into the game, he knew the manager might call upon a pinch hitter. Eventually, he became that pinch hitter, a one-at-bat-a-day guy.

Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki speaks at a news conference at the teams’ spring training baseball complex on Wednesday in Peoria, Ariz. (AP)
Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki speaks at a news conference at the teams’ spring training baseball complex on Wednesday in Peoria, Ariz. (AP)

“It was tough experiences,” he said. “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 experiences, all those things I went through, have made me who I am today.”

And that, he said, is different than the player who came to Seattle in 2001, batted .350 and won the American League MVP award. It’s not the guy who slapped 262 hits in a season and booked a decade of 200-hit years and exceeded the 3,000-hit plateau despite not playing his first game in the major leagues until after his 27th birthday.

“I’m really thinking about this year and what the Seattle Mariners need,” Ichiro said. “What I can do to help. And that’s what I want to do. I want to be able to help the Seattle Mariners. I want to give it all. Everything I’ve gained, everything I’ve done in my career, I just want to give it all right here in Seattle.”

Though there’s a fine line between nobility and cliché, Ichiro heard his translator, Allen Turner, offering those words and made sure to add the final two sentences, as though to emphasize the point that as much as he’d like to keep playing for himself, the motivations aren’t purely selfish. There is little glory in being a team’s 25th man. His roster spot lives under a guillotine. He is, essentially, a $200,000 gamble for the Mariners, who will pay him slightly more than that over the $545,000 minimum salary. Mariners manager Scott Servais said the team’s brass asked of Ichiro: “Does this help us win?” The answer was in the affirmative.

And while it’s easy, and perhaps correct, to view that through a cynical lens – really, now, a 44-year-old who’s going to juice ticket sales is there to help a team win? – Ichiro’s opportunity to re-enter a locker room that housed his self-absorption and imbue it instead with bestowal of knowledge offers not redemption as much as a fitting finale.

To which Ichiro, of course, would scoff, his desire to play until his number – 51 – palpable. There is something eternally youthful about him. The contours of his body remain identical, as if he froze time. His face is still angular, his swing ever honed by muscles with the memory of an elephant. All that’s changed is his hair, and naturally he’s the kind of guy on whom gray looks good. In a dark suit with clean lines and a skinny tie, he cut the graceful, stylish figure of someone, oh, half his age.

Across town, there was that someone. Shohei Ohtani is 23 years old, and he is partaking in the greatest moonshot for a Japanese player since Ichiro arrived, trying to be a full-time pitcher and part-time hitter. When he signed with the Los Angeles Angels, he texted Ichiro, and over the offseason, they met a few times, and beyond his desire to hit against Ohtani – and, amusingly, his plea to pitch against him, too – Ichiro’s thoughts on him were interesting: “He’s mentally definitely tough. The age difference, I’m like a father and he’s like a son, but mentally, he is like a father and I am like a son.”

Perhaps it was self-deprecation, or maybe an acknowledgment that the older he gets, the more he’s understanding how much he doesn’t know – that the wisdom the Japanese so venerate comes not from experience but recognition of self. Boggs, the agent, said, “Now he’s where he belongs. Seattle is going to experience the greatness of Ichiro when he gets back.” And this is true, though in a far different way than what the city remembers. This is an ephemeral greatness, an ode to what happens when desire meets obsession and happens to stumble upon clarity. This is Ichiro, faced with losing all he knows, fighting who he has been, edging closer to realizing who he wants to be.

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