I often flash back to that famous picture from the final day of the Seattle Mariners’ 2009 season, with a beaming Ichiro and Ken Griffey Jr. about to exchange a triumphant high-five as they are carried off the field on teammates’ shoulders.
It was two Seattle legends at a moment of extreme bliss, having completed a season of great personal enjoyment for both and overachievement for the Mariners. All seemed perfect in both of their worlds.
But, alas, time does not remain frozen. Rather than leaving on top, Griffey decided to come back in 2010 for what turned out to be a miserable year for him on all levels until he unceremoniously rode off into the night in June.
And Ichiro’s performance dipped precipitously in 2011 before he asked for a trade to the New York Yankees during the 2012 season.
It was sentiment and nostalgia that brought Griffey back to Seattle for a final stand, and it will be sentiment and nostalgia that soon brings Ichiro back to the Mariners, provided he passes his physical exam as expected.
The Mariners suddenly have a need for reinforcements in the outfield after Ben Gamel’s oblique strain was diagnosed Monday. But it is hard to make a strong baseball argument that Ichiro is the one to fill the need. He is, after all, 44 years old with declining offensive numbers and coming off a year with minimal playing opportunity as anything but a pinch hitter.
We all know that Ichiro keeps himself in exquisite shape and will outwork anyone on the team, even those who are two decades younger. When I went to Miami in 2016 to talk to Ichiro as he approached his 3,000th hit as a member of the Marlins, I saw the exercise contraptions he was using to stay in shape. And I heard testimonials from teammate after teammate — including current Mariners pitcher David Phelps — about what a fantastic clubhouse presence he was.
So as a short-term extra outfielder while the Mariners cross their fingers that Guillermo Heredia is recovered from his shoulder surgery, Mitch Haniger’s hand injury is nothing serious, and Gamel really does come back in six weeks from an injury that is notorious for lingering much longer, Ichiro makes a little bit of sense in a ceremonial sense.
You get the good vibes from bringing back a foundational player. I’ve always had the sense that the Mariners would find a way to bring back Ichiro to close out his career in much the same way they did with Griffey (although Ichiro wants to play until he is 50 and is dead serious about it).
You get a guy who can still handle himself in the outfield, though he is not the Gold Glove, rifle-armed guy he was in his prime. And you get a guy from whom young players can soak up the accumulated knowledge from a Hall of Fame career.
Here is what you don’t get: an offensive threat of any sort. Not any more. Ichiro was almost primarily a pinch hitter last year with the Marlins, getting 100 of his 196 at-bats in that role, but in the American League those opportunities will not be nearly as plentiful. Ichiro had just nine extra-base hits.
The Mariners did not have many good options, however. The outfielders in camp with major league experience are Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who has a hamstring injury, and Cameron Perkins, who hit .182 for the Philadelphia Phillies last year. Internally, they have Braden Bishop and Ian Miller — both highly promising, but neither has major league experience, and neither is on the major league roster. Nelson Cruz in the outfield is not appealing.
The Mariners have little in the way of prospects to offer in a trade. And the remaining outfield free agents include Carlos Gonzalez, Jon Jay, Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista and a few others, all of whom remain unsigned for a reason. And most of them are going to want a commitment of money and playing time that does not necessarily fit with the Mariners’ needs.
Which brings us back to Ichiro, who at this stage of his career has settled comfortably into the role of a backup. Playing behind Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcel Ozuna the past few years in Miami made for precious few opportunities for Ichiro to play, and he accepted that reality.
The Mariners’ best long-term option, when you get down to it, is counting on Gamel to come back healthy by the middle of April.
And here is where I wonder how this is all going to play out. If and when you have Gamel, Haniger, Heredia and newly acquired Dee Gordon all available, where does that leave Ichiro? And if one of them is out longer term, do you really want Ichiro getting significant playing time at this stage of his career?
Another possibility: We will find out that Ichiro has truly reached the end of the line. I mean, he is 44 years old, and there are precious few players — Julio Franco and Pete Rose come to mind — still productive at that age.
So at some point, perhaps early, the Mariners may have to think about moving on to another plan. But as we learned with Griffey, that is not so easy when it comes to a legend. They often are the last to recognize that it’s over, and the temptation is to carry them along simply because no one has the heart to cut someone of that stature.
In other words, if sentiment and nostalgia are what bring Ichiro back, it could be sentiment and nostalgia that make it messy in the end.