The rebuilding Seattle Mariners will have far fewer familiar faces on their opening roster when their season begins March 20 in Japan. Yet the oldest and most familiar face of them all, 45-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, is still expected to be there.
General manager Jerry Dipoto confirmed this week that the Mariners are planning to include Ichiro on their expanded opening day roster. That would give the baseball legend a chance to play one final time in his home country, while creating a dream scenario for newly signed pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, who grew up idolizing Ichiro in Japan.
“Ichi will be on our team when we go to Tokyo,” Dipoto told reporters at Kikuchi’s introductory news conference. “He’ll be an active player.”
Not retired yet
The Mariners began transitioning Ichiro into a front office role during the 2018 season. He appeared in just 15 games, with the final one coming on May 2 at Safeco Field. He finished the season with nine hits in 44 at-bats.
Despite what appeared to be a retirement as an active player, Ichiro insisted that was never the case. He always intended to play again in 2019. It seems the Mariners are intent on having him, perhaps even beyond what on the surface appears to be a goodwill gesture.
“We are still committed to the idea of developing this roster,” Dipoto added, courtesy of MLB.com. “Mitch Haniger is going to be our right fielder, Mallex Smith is going to play center field and Domingo Santana will be the primary left fielder. And we’ll find at-bats for Jay Bruce, whether they be in left field, DH or occasionally at first base.”
“That’s the way we envision the 2019 season playing out. But one thing I’ve learned with Ichiro, first of all his preparation and focus is the best I’ve ever seen on any player I’ve ever encountered. His single-mindedness in achieving a goal is so real that I won’t put anything past him.”
The Mariners and Oakland Athletics will bring 28-man rosters with them for the season-opening series. That special exception is being made because of how far from home both teams will be. It gives both teams some roster flexibility in case of injury. In Seattle’s case, it makes it easier to find room for Ichiro.
Of course, Dipoto makes it sound as though Ichiro will not only be locked into the lineup for those two games, but perhaps battling for even more play time.
“Frankly 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,” Dipoto said. “You have to adjust as you go. We’re not going to predetermine anything. We’ll give him the opportunity to come in and do what he does, and prepare the way he prepares.”
We wouldn’t put anything past Ichiro. He’s always been one of the game’s hardest workers. Beyond that, he’s probably forgotten more about hitting than most of us will ever know. He’ll be prepared. The question is whether the A’s will be prepared for him.
Ichiro’s inclusion would likely create a cherished moment for Yusei Kikuchi.
If Kikuchi shows well in spring training, it would be a shock if he didn’t serve as starting pitcher for one of Seattle’s games in Japan. If he had Ichiro backing him up, it would be a dream come true.
Kikuchi, who as of Thursday had yet to meet Ichiro, added that stepping on the field with Ichiro “will be a great moment.”
No one could deny that. Here’s hoping the Mariners dream scenario is able to play out.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Ticket prices plummet for college football title game
• Steelers’ Brown responds to ex-teammate, calls him ‘Uncle Tom’
• Soaring TV ratings, streaming viewership an NFL bright spot
• Thamel: How Saban’s evolution changed Alabama