Edwin Diaz fired two fastballs right past the hitter. Scott Servais was standing at the end of the dugout when he heard Ichiro Suzuki’s one-liner in perfect English.
“Stay right there, you’re right on him,” Ichiro said.
“Coming from Ichi, in English, that was pretty good,” Servais said, laughing. “It’s something you might hear from some of our other guys, but it just rolled off his tongue. It was pretty good.”
The Mariners have made no qualms with how much they love the 44-year-old franchise icon’s presence on the club since they brought him back to Seattle on a one-year contract this offseason, especially for his presence and tedious approach to a game that he’s played professionally since he was an 18-year-old in Japan.
But it feels like the Mariners and Ichiro are soon about to part ways — again.
Maybe Sunday. Maybe early this week. But Ichiro certainly wasn’t in the Mariners’ original plans (not until Ben Gamel went down with an oblique injury in spring training), and his production on the field hasn’t done anything so far to warrant a coveted roster spot over what some others have done.
If he had a different name, it’s hard to imagine he would have lasted this long.
But he’s Ichiro.
“From the most accomplished players in the clubhouse to the youngest and most impressionable, he’s touched every one of them in a positive way,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said on his weekly segment on 710-AM radio. “You invest in people and you invest in leadership, and I think Ichiro has really brought that.
“He’s done so much behind the scenes that has really helped us to develop a good clubhouse environment and I think a positive approach night in and night out.”
But Ichiro was also hitting .212 (7-for-33) entering Friday, and all seven of those hits were singles. His on-base percentage and slugging percentage were also .212.
He has been substituted late in games defensively for Guillermo Heredia (which would have been shocking during his run of 10 Gold Gloves in his first stint in Seattle). And the Mariners certainly have others who are faster than Ichiro on the bases, too.
Really, the Mariners knew this time would come. And they know the difficult conversation is ahead. They haven’t admitted to that publicly but you can infer it.
They just didn’t expect to have the conversation so soon. Dipoto said they didn’t expect Gamel back from his oblique injury until May 1 at the earliest, and there Gamel was, recovered and back with the Mariners on Wednesday.
Dipoto was asked if he believes Ichiro still wants to play, even if he and the Mariners do part ways.
“He deserves the ability to go play,” Dipoto said. “He’s earned it.
“But unfortunately right now we feel like and have made no bones about it – when we brought him in he understood that Ben Gamel was on his way back and it probably happened a week or two weeks earlier than we thought it would. But I’m very confident Ichiro still wants to play and still has the skills to play. It’s a matter of opportunity.”
Ichiro had the loudest cheers of any player (though Felix Hernandez was pretty close) when he started in left field on Opening Day. And his best game came the next game when he robbed the Indians’ Jason Kipnis of a home run and had a pair of hits.
Think about this: Ichiro began his career with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan in 1992, while Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, who will be enshrined this summer, signed with the Expos as an 18-year-old in 1993 and made his major-league debut late in the 1996 season.
Guerrero played his final game in 2011 (when Ichiro was still with the Mariners) and debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in January of 2017 – when Ichiro was about to embark on his third season with the Miami Marlins.
Ichiro has played 27 seasons of professional baseball.
So give him every benefit of the doubt.
But the Mariners are in their 17th season without having made the playoffs. They don’t have a margin for keeping players for nostalgia sake.
“We got Ben Gamel in the works now,” Servais said. “The original club coming into spring training did not have Ichiro on it. He was brought in to be pretty much our everyday left fielder with Guillermo Heredia. We’ll see. We love having Ichiro on the club. Ultimately though it’s about what’s best for the ball club and what’s going to help us win.”
Maybe Ichiro’s final game was Saturday against the Rangers in Texas, with the Mariners set to activate right-hander Erasmo Ramirez from the disabled list for Sunday’s game. Maybe it’s soon after when first baseman Ryon Healy finishes a rehab assignment he began with Double-A Arkansas on Friday.
Or maybe the Mariners decide to tear up their offseason vision of eight relievers in the bullpen (an industry standard now) and instead use seven. But that’s a big organizational shift for a player who hasn’t produced much more than singles and is 44 years old.
“Our intent is to do the best we can to manage all the pieces,” Dipoto said. “At the end of the day what matters most is what makes us the best team we can be. But eventually you are not going to have the luxury of carrying five outfielders, and we’ll have to figure out how the pieces fit. This is not that time.”
Dipoto compared it to when Ken Griffey Jr. returned for a second stint in Seattle.
“When they return to the team that they made their fame with, it’s not as simple as being the fourth outfielder on the New York Yankees or Miami Marlins,” Dipoto said. “In Seattle, you are Ichiro. In Seattle you are The Kid (Griffey). While they are a great player no matter where they go, there is a special resonance that you really can’t get away from in this market with those players. You have to wonder how easily a player can acclimate to moving into more of a support role rather than the starring one. I think Ichiro has handled it remarkably well.
“He’s been a model teammate. He works as hard as any player I’ve ever watched, truly. For him to be able to do the things he does physically at age 44 is phenomenal. But what he has brought to our club really does deserve to be noted, and he deserves to be handled and dealt with in a respectful way, not only for what all he has accomplished but for the way he carries himself still today.”