Mariners’ opening night isn’t just another game for Ichiro Suzuki

Mar 28, 2018, 8:17 PM
Ichiro Suzuki will start in left field and hit ninth in his Mariners return at Safeco Field. (AP)...
Ichiro Suzuki will start in left field and hit ninth in his Mariners return at Safeco Field. (AP)

Wearing Seattle Mariners colors at Safeco Field for the first time in over five years, Ichiro Suzuki put some extra thought into his words on Wednesday afternoon.

Peppered by questions from the media at his old locker following a team workout, Ichiro took several long pauses – sometimes before starting his answer, other times in the middle of a response – to make sure he truly conveyed how much returning to the franchise means to him.

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One thing was made abundantly clear by his comments: Thursday’s opening night is not just any old game for professional baseball’s all-time hits leader.

“Right now, the dreams that I have, one of them came true,” Ichiro said through interpreter Allen Turner.

The sentiment is the same one the 44-year-old Ichiro shared at a press conference in Arizona following his signing with the Mariners earlier this month. After multi-year stints with the New York Yankees and Miami Marlins, Ichiro is happy to be back with the franchise he called home for the first 11 1/2 years of his MLB career.

It hasn’t been the easiest return so far for Ichiro, however. He was limited by a right calf strain for much of spring training, to the point that his inclusion on the opening night 25-man roster wasn’t a sure thing until it was announced Wednesday. And when he was in action in Arizona it was a struggle, going 0 for 10 with five strikeouts in Cactus League play.

In Wednesday’s workout, though, it sure looked like the same Ichiro. Same swing. Same knack for placing hits in areas where fielders aren’t positioned. Same confidence you would expect from a 10-time All-Star and former MVP.

It’s not the same Ichiro, though. He’s a role player now. He hasn’t made an All-Star team since 2010, hasn’t made 450 plate appearances since 2013, didn’t even start for much of the past two seasons.

His role with the Mariners will be similar to the one he played for Miami last year. He’ll platoon with Guillermo Heredia in left field – not right field, as Mariners fans are accustomed to seeing him play – and that’s only until Ben Gamel recovers from an oblique strain. After then, there are no guarantees.

Ichiro seems at peace with this reality.

“I’m here to just give it all I have for the team. That’s my No. 1 thing,” he said. “The reason I’m here today is so that I can help the Mariners.”

A sellout crowd will witness Ichiro’s long-awaited Mariners return on Thursday night against the Cleveland Indians, primed to greet him with a hero’s welcome. It will undoubtedly be an emotional moment, not just for the player but for many in the stands, as well.

It’s a moment that Ichiro is no doubt looking forward to.

“I’m just excited to see what happens tomorrow.”

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