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Drayer: Ichiro sets the bat down, takes special assistant role with Mariners

Ichiro has halted his playing career with the Mariners at 44 years old. (Matt Pitman photo)

The long and storied playing career of Ichiro Suzuki may be at its end. After 3,089 hits in the major leagues and 1,278 in Japan, he has put the bat down.

He will remain with the Mariners as a Special Assistant to the Chairman.

Watch: Top 10 plays of Ichiro’s career | Photo gallery

Ichiro’s final game – at least for now – was a 3-2 Mariners loss to Oakland on Wednesday night. Reports suggest he may continue his career in 2019, perhaps even with the Mariners in their opening series in Japan next year. But for now, he will serve a role as an active off-the-field presence with the Mariners, both at home in Seattle and on the road.

“We want to make sure we capture all of the value that Ichiro brings to this team off the field,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “This new role is a way to accomplish that. While it will evolve over time, the key is that Ichiro’s presence in our clubhouse and with our players and staff improves our opportunity to win games. That is our number-one priority and Ichiro’s number-one priority.”

In his return to the Mariners this season, a 44-year-old Ichiro was unable to generate much of the old magic, hitting just .205/.255/.406 in very limited use. He was welcomed back to the clubhouse, however, by both those who had played with him as a Mariner in the past and those who were teammates of his in New York and Miami. The respect the current Mariners have for Ichiro was apparent from the moment he arrived in Peoria to his final game, serving as a good reminder that history and historic careers still mean something within the walls of the clubhouse.

That respect was showed in the stadium, as well. The opening night crowd on March 29 roared when his name was announced in the introductions and every time he walked to the plate. Just as much as Ichiro wanted to wear the Mariners uniform again, his fans also seemed to want to see it once more.

While it was a long shot that Ichiro would be able to produce enough on the field to remain on a roster with just three bench spots, there was no question he was going to try. His quest was to play until 50, or as he said in his press conference after signing in spring training, 50 at a minimum. While I would imagine that walking away from the game is the hardest thing Ichiro has ever done, if this is truly it, it is about as fitting an end as could be hoped for.

For now, Ichiro’s MLB career has come full circle. What occurred in the 2,651 games in between his 2001 debut and today will put him in the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

What we got to witness in Seattle was special. The first Japanese position player coming to the majors, and despite the naysayers in baseball – which at the time were in the majority, not minority – broke records and put up Hall of Fame numbers. What was most impressive to me as I got to watch him part-time in 2001 and 2002 and full-time starting in 2003 was that he did it his way every step of the way. The game he played in Japan, he played in the US. He did not have to adapt or compromise the game he brought to MLB in any way. Ichiro’s game translated, and that spoke to the greatness of Ichiro.

Getting to watch Ichiro up close was fascinating. We saw things in the Mariners clubhouse that you wouldn’t see in any other. The routine and discipline were unparalleled. The media coverage unlike anything we could have imagined. Every swing documented, interviews after every game regardless of his impact that night. If Ichiro did have major impact on a game, the US media would speak to him and that was always an experience. It was never safe to assume anything when asking questions, and you were more often than not likely to get more than you bargained for in his answers – particularly in his earlier days.

It was apparent that Ichiro looked at baseball as more than a game. His life, his philosophies melded into every move he made on the field. He wanted that to be understood, even if it was sometimes hard to. Often when walking away from an interview with Ichiro his interpreter would follow, at Ichiro’s request, wanting to make sure that what he was trying to convey was understood. It meant that much to him.

The feeling that Ichiro put into his words is something that I am not sure was ever appreciated enough. He was a compelling speaker even in a different language. I can’t tell you how many times I positioned myself directly in front of him in media scrums, microphone raised, nodding along with what he was saying, only to realize after a few moments that I don’t speak Japanese and I really should be in front of the interpreter.

We forgot sometimes that Ichiro was one of the biggest sports stars on the planet. We were reminded when the Mariners took a season-opening trip to Japan for a two-game series with Oakland in 2012. The Mariners were given a glimpse and treated to the rock star experience when they arrived, walking through a screaming crowd of fans at the airport. A similar group was outside the team hotel every day. Ichiro’s image was everywhere, from billboards to buildings to ad boards in our hotel and in the subway. His teammates had heard, but nobody really knew or understood until they saw it themselves. It was an incredible experience.

Ichiro was very businesslike on that trip, but in Seattle there was of course a fun side he would display as well. He was always quick with a quip, which was often on display on the in-game videos that were played at Safeco Field between innings. He was also always quick to laugh. For all of the drive he had to perform, it was clear he also wanted to enjoy his time in the clubhouse. That was never more apparent than in the 2009 season when Ken Griffey Jr. returned. It was good to see.

On a personal note, I appreciated getting to cover Ichiro in his years with the Mariners. For me, it was incredibly interesting getting to see something we hadn’t seen before. It was also interesting watching him as a person through the years. Early on, he was perhaps a little intimidating. He was very formal and it was important to me to be polite, and being unsure of his cultural norms it was sometimes tough to navigate some situations. The ice was broken, however, one morning in San Diego.

Ichiro was ahead of me in the line at the hotel espresso bar. Back in his younger days, he could look like an exchange student or traveler from Japan when he was out and about. He could enjoy his anonymity. That morning I was afraid that if I said something I would draw attention to him. I chose not to and immediately felt bad about it. After he made his purchase he turned around and greeted me. I apologized for not saying hello earlier and told him, through his interpreter about my dilemma. He laughed, then turned serious.

“Call me Brad,” he said in English. “Brad Pitt.”

Another moment away from the field I will always remember about Ichiro was a dinner he had with some teammates and staff during spring training in 2011. I was at the same restaurant that night, as it was my mother’s birthday and I took her there to celebrate. When we walked in we were called over to the table. I said hello to those who were there, had a couple of words with a few, all while Mom was taking in the scene. While it was an everyday occurrence for me, it was a big deal for Mom to come across a table of Mariners. As she went through all of the players that were at the table she stopped for a second and asked who the young player with the pleasant look was at the end of the table. It was Ichiro. Completely unrecognizable out of uniform, relaxed away from the game.

I saw more of this Ichiro in the years after he left the Mariners and began to transition from superstar to part-time player. He told a story at his press conference in Peoria this spring of having his rock-solid routine shook by having to look at a lineup card for the first time in his career when he became a Yankee. That was perhaps the beginning of the transitions to the end.

He made those transitions, which couldn’t have been easy, gracefully. He will face this transition, be it temporary or permanent, in the same manner.

While I suspect he will still pick up a bat every day as he remains with the organization, it will be done quietly, behind the scenes. For now, the on-the-field fireworks – or laser beams straight out of Star Wars, as the great Dave Niehaus once said – are gone. The charisma Ichiro showed between the lines now a memory. If you were there to see it, you were fortunate to be watching one of the all-time greats.

It is impossible to know what the future holds for Ichiro beyond the Hall of Fame, but it is good to hear it was important to him to remain with the Mariners. Ichiro’s mark on the Mariners and the game of baseball is forever.

Ichiro finds ‘old-time religion’ with HR-robbing catch for Mariners

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