PEORIA, Ariz. — They screamed and shouted his name. They scampered from field to field to get a glimpse of him.
And when the Seattle Mariners’ first official workout day ended Saturday afternoon, it turned into an actual stampede of frenzied fans trying desperately to get his autograph.
Ichiro Suzuki may be 45 years old, is only on a minor-league contract, and has no guarantee of being on the team after the Mariners’ March 20-21 series in Japan, but around these parts, he’s Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez all rolled into one.
The man is royalty.
“He’s like a folk hero,’’ Mariners 31-year-old outfielder Jay Bruce says. “There’s this mystique about him. Greatness speaks for itself.
“I mean, he’s a first-name-only guy. Ichiro. That’s awesome. I’ll always be able to tell everybody that I played with Ichiro.’’
Ichiro, who reported to camp in better shape than anyone on the roster with a team-low 7 percent body fat, has waited 10 months for this moment.
He was released as a player May 3, 2018, immediately joining the Mariners front office as a special assistant to the chairman, but never retired.
He desperately wanted to be in uniform at least one final time when the Mariners opened the season in Japan, with Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto vowing in January that with an expanded 28-man roster for those two games against the Oakland A’s, Ichiro would be on the team as long as he’s healthy.
Dipoto stood by his comments Saturday, but when asked if Ichiro had a chance to make the 25-man roster after the Mariners return home, the decision becomes much murkier.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,’’ says Dipoto. “He’s remarkable. But right now, we’re focused on the 28.’’
Does he have a realistic shot to make the 25-man team?
“Everybody,’’ Dipoto said, “has got a chance. Right now, his goal is to make sure he’s on that plane when we leave for Tokyo.’’
Dipoto then reeled off his starting outfield of Mitch Haniger, Mallex Smith and Domingo Santana, tossed veteran Jay Bruce into the mix, along with a slew of young prospects, and his voice faded.
“We’ll keep an open mind,’’ he said, “for anything that might come down the road.’’
Simply, Ichiro is not actively in their long-term plans, with one high-ranking Mariners executive even asking him whether he may consider retiring after the Japan series.
Sorry, that’s a negative, Ghost Rider.
Ichiro has no intention of retiring now, after Japan, during the season, or even in the near future.
Does he still want to play until he’s 50 years old?
“At least,’’ he said.
There was no smile.
Ichiro also revealed that he has no intention of wearing another uniform again in his career.
It’s the Mariners or no one.
“A 45-year-old baseball player really shouldn’t be thinking about the future,” Ichiro said. “It’s about today. I’m just going to take it day by day and we’ll get to that point where it does come.
“But right now, I’m just taking it day by day.”
He came into this organization in 2001 as Japan’s most prolific hitter, and 19 years, 10 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, two batting titles, and 3,089 hits later, will ultimately end up in Cooperstown.
Still, as he drove into camp Saturday, with dozens of TV crews and photographers lined up on the sidewalk to capture the moment, his new young teammates gawking as he entered the clubhouse, and fans outside shrieking at the sight of him, everyone realizes they’re witnessing a Hall of Famer in their midst. He just may be the first position player to garner 100 percent of the Hall of Fame vote unless Yankees icon Derek Jeter achieves the honor first.
The players in the Mariners’ clubhouse certainly were more reserved than the fans upon seeing Ichiro, but the excitement was little different.
There was Smith, the 25-year-old outfielder, slowly walking up to Ichiro to introduce himself, shaking his hand, and showing pictures on his phone. Rookie Japanese pitcher Yusei Kikuchi nervously talked to him, informing him that he was in elementary school dreaming one day of playing with Ichiro. Haniger talked about the lifetime thrill he’ll have playing alongside him in Japan.
The players, 34 of them who had never even worn a Mariners uniform, virtually all stopped what they were doing and, trying to keep from gawking, watched Ichiro – nearly two hours before the Mariners took the field – as he sat on the floor in front of his locker and began rotating his legs side to side, then lifting them up and over his head.
“When you’re young and having seen something like that,’’ said veteran pitcher Anthony Swarzak, “it’s hard to put into words and feelings. It’s cool for the young guys to be able to see the buzz and hype around a player like that. He’s the ultimate professional.’’
A man old enough to be their father, and in better shape than their own kids.
“It’s unbelievable,’’ Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Ich is ready to go. He takes it as serious as anybody in that room, and that has allowed him to keep playing all those 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.
“How long has he been doing this? He’s the greatest.’’
Ichiro, who says he took only two or three days off the entire winter, gets a kick of being the last one standing in his era. He’s the oldest player in baseball. Why, the next oldest position player is Albert Pujols, and he’s 39.
“One of my goals since I turned pro, and time went by,’’ Ichiro said, “that one day I would play with players that were kids when I was still playing. Right now, I’m at the point I’m playing with guys who were in grade school when I was playing.
“It definitely gives me some satisfaction.’’
Now, here is the full circle, and no matter what happens during the Mariners’ two-game series in Japan, or whether he’s cut from the roster before their March 29 traditional opener against the Boston Red Sox, he’ll forever be grateful for this final ride.
Still, when asked what it means to be with the Mariners at least one final time, to play in his homeland wearing a Mariners uniform, he couldn’t adequately describe his feelings.
“I think it’s something that right now,’’ he said, “I’m not going to say. I want it to sound lightly. I want it to mean a lot.
“I don’t think words can say it.’’
No matter, his face said it all.
Ichiro is coming home.
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