Ichiro's back in Seattle
There is no exit-strategy manual for baseball legends on the cusp of retirement.
Boston slugger David Ortiz, who had announced 2017 would be his final season, basked in a standing ovation upon being removed for a pinch-runner during a playoff-elimination game against Cleveland at Fenway Park. Ortiz stuck around for a more prolonged ovation after the Red Sox lost, doffing his cap to fans who also stuck around.
On the other hand, Ernie Banks, the most beloved player ever to wear a Chicago Cubs uniform, took his last at-bats in a low-key mood during his team's 1971 home finale. Although few in the crowd of 18,505 expected him to return for a 19th season – he'd hit .193, with three homers and six runs batted in – the Cubs provided no recognition that Banks' Hall of Fame career had reached the finish line.
Which brings me to Ichiro Suzuki. The Mariners reportedly have informed Ichiro of his status, and Ichiro reportedly is comfortable with it.
The plan, I presume, will be to replace the 44-year outfielder on the roster with somebody capable of contributing more than the nine singles he collected in April. If that's the case, the Mariners weekend series against the Angels at Safeco Field presents an opportunity for Ichiro to go out in the grand style that David Ortiz did, rather than the drab style that Ernie Banks did.
Definition of grand style: Allowing Ichiro a chance to face Shohei Ohtani, the most acclaimed rookie from Japan since, well, Ichiro. As you may have heard, Ohtani is a dual threat phenomenon, a high-velocity strikeout pitcher able to to hit mammoth home runs between starts.
His next start will come in Seattle. Angels manager Mike Scioscia hasn't revealed whether that's Friday, Saturday or Sunday, but whenever Ohtani takes the mound, Ichiro needs to be standing at the plate, preparing for the pitch – bat held vertically, ready to uncoil – in a pre-swing process that's less a routine than a ritual.
With the Astros seemingly destined to repeat as AL West champs, the Angels are looming as a threat to claim one of the two wild-card playoff berths the Mariners also covet. Between these teams, every game is critical.
Sentimentality shouldn't dictate any lineup Seattle manager Scott Servais cobbles together against the Angels. Winning is the No. 1 priority, and the sideshow of Japan's newest sensation throwing pitches to Japan's most accomplished hitter ranks a distant second.
But every once in a while, a situation calls for smart guys who love baseball to push the business-as-usual plate aside for the good of the game. The sports world these days is revolving around the NBA and NHL playoffs and, of course, the NFL, which has achieved its ambition of 24/7 ubiquity.
Baseball? It's an afterthought. Everybody's talking about LeBron James and Steph Curry and the NFL Network's 100 best players list offered in gradual increments designed to assure viewers stay tuned for the latest 100 best update culminating in arguments among the dumb and dumber.
Ichiro vs. Ohtani – the old, wise sage vs. the kid who grew up idolizing him – packs the potential of an international spectacle profound enough to qualify for top billing on ESPN's SportsCenter. A baseball highlight in May. Imagine that.
But arranging such a highlight is fraught with complications, beginning with the question of where to insert Ichiro in the lineup. Dee Gordon is the leadoff hitter, the spark plug of the most dynamic Mariners' batting order we've ever seen. Ichiro is not a leadoff guy any more. He's a No. 9 guy.
While it's likely Ohtani would pitch to Seattle's ninth hitter, nothing is guaranteed. A few weeks ago, Ohtani's start was cut short in the second inning because of a blister. A minor injury, no big deal, but a frustration that underscored the volatility of throwing baseballs at 100 mph.
There's only one way to assure that Ichiro steps into the batter's box against Ohtani: As a leadoff hitter.
The numbers suggest that's crazy. Gordon, whose 5-for-5 effort on Tuesday night improved his batting average to .339, is on the kind of tear Ichiro hasn't enjoyed in a decade.
But when a once-in-a-lifetime confrontation is in the mix, when baseball history is awaiting, adjustments are required. Installing Ichiro as the leadoff hitter against Ohtani, for at least one at-bat, would be a proper scenario due a franchise icon.
With magic in the air, I wouldn't be surprised if Ichiro seized the moment. He knows he's done, we know he's done, but Ichiro's remarkable big-league career is steeped in the premise that anything is possible when there's a bat in his hands.
Memo to the Mariners: Make Ichiro vs. Ohtani happen. Make it a celebration replete with thousands of flashbulbs flickering from the stands.
A home run similar to the fireworks Roy Hobbs set off in the "The Natural" is the ultimate fantasy, but I'm prone to foresee events in the real world that has no mercy on baseball players well past their prime.
Ichiro blasting a light-tower shot is out of the question.
May he settle for a triple, and take a bow.