It’s a homecoming for Ichiro.
The Seattle Mariners signed their former superstar to a one-year contract. Ichiro, who spent the first ten years of his Major League career in Seattle, is returning after a five-year hiatus to the city electrified by his unprecedented speed, lethal cannon of a right arm, and martial dedication to the sport.
While baseball fans across the world can rejoice that a generational talent has at least one more shot in a game that has been shaped by a league-wide youth movement, Ichiro’s prior release from the Marlins and subsequent Seattle signing begs a question no one wants to ask: is this the end of a 26 year-long career spanning across two continents and two premiere baseball leagues?
Why are the Mariners bringing him back?
There are two answers to this question.
First, when Spring Training started, the Mariners' outfield seemed set. The acquisition of Dee Gordon from the Marlins, who was originally a second baseman, gave them speed in a spacious center field and also a top-of-the-lineup bat to lead the way. In right field, Mitch Haniger has cemented himself as a rising stud after hitting .282 with 16 home runs in an injury-shortened 94 game season in 2017, while Ben Gamel proved a steady defender in left while hitting at a .275 clip with 27 doubles and five triples.
But then Gamel went down with an oblique strain that would sideline him for a month, and the Mariners had a hole in left field that needed quick filling for the time being. Seeing Ichiro on the free agent market with no team having expressed interest, the Mariners were presented with a low risk, high reward opportunity that would feed both their depth needs and placating the fans with a feel-good story heading into the season.
Which leads into the second reason behind this signing. Ichiro brings more than just his baseball acumen to a team. His experience as an ambassador to baseball and overall success at the major league level brings a wisdom to a team that hasn't seen the playoffs since Ichiro's rookie season in 2001. His presence in that young clubhouse is just as important, if not more, than his performance on the field.
"His incredible work ethic, preparation, and focus will enhance our environment in many ways,” said Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto in a statement, and therein might lie Ichiro’s greatest value to the organization.
If he can replicate the .290 season he had with Miami as a 42-year-old, then the Mariners have a win-win situation on their hands. However, as soon as Gamel returns from his oblique strain Ichiro’s role will be reduced, as it was during the 2017 season with the Marlins.
Is this the end?
Ichiro has made no sign he plans to retire, but is that decision really up to him?
At 44 years old, it's hard to imagine Ichiro has much left in the tank, but then again this is a man whose physical conditioning would put men half his age to shame. But it's no secret that Ichiro has no place in Seattle's plans, and regardless of performance, it's a major question whether other teams will take a flier on the aging outfield when the entire league has experienced a drastic youth movement of budding stars.
Seeing him patrolling the outfield of Safeco Field while wearing his iconic number 51 makes up the beginning of a swan song. And perhaps that is all he needs; an opportunity for closure with the organization that took a chance on him seventeen years before.
In Japan, he was a superstar, cultivated over a nine-year period in the Nippon Professional Baseball league that saw him collect over 1,200 hits and a career .353 batting average. MVP awards, batting champion titles, and gold gloves were the physical affirmations of his success in his home country, and when it was announced he was to sign his first MLB contract with the Seattle Mariners, there were questions whether he could replicate his success in what was considered a superior league.
Fast forward 16 years, and we are met with a player exploring the twilight years of an illustrious career, trying to make one final statement before father time makes his long-awaited house call. The 4,358 hits (3,080 of them in the MLB) and counting speak for themselves as do the Rookie of the Year and MVP trophies he won in 2001. He paved the way for Japan's best players to try their hand in North America because without Ichiro, there'd be no Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish, or Masahiro Tanaka among others.
But let us put such sentiments to the wayside. For the moment, his career persists, defying the laws of time while holding to the vigor of a man half his age. Besides, Ichiro is a man of several surprises.
2018 could be his biggest surprise yet.