SEATTLE (AP) — Roughly three hours before first pitch on Thursday night, Ichiro Suzuki jogged to join his Seattle Mariners teammates in the outfield, fully in uniform, black mitt in hand, prepping for another pregame routine of catching fly balls and hitting in the cage.
Except there was no game for the 44-year-old Suzuki to get ready for. He wouldn’t be in the lineup on this night, or again in the 2018 season. And maybe his career.
“The past two months have been the happiest I’ve been,” Suzuki said through an interpreter. “I knew one day that the day would come when I would have to walk away. But the Mariners have given me this opportunity to stay on. Obviously, with my teammates and how great they’ve been and how much they mean to me and how much I want to help is the reason I wanted to stay on and help in any way I can.”
Suzuki’s career transitioned Thursday when the Mariners announced he was shifting into a front office role as a special assistant to the chairman. The job isn’t sitting behind a desk but rather more of what Suzuki has done every day of his 18 seasons in the majors. He’ll still be in the clubhouse. He’ll still go through pregame workouts and preparations and take part in batting practice.
When the game begins, Suzuki will be required to leave the bench and will take his spot in the clubhouse. He’s a player-coach, except without the player part for the rest of the 2018 season.
Manager Scott Servais said Suzuki’s role will morph over time, but he expects Suzuki to have a hand in helping with outfield defense, base running and hitting.
“I just want it to be kind of organic, it grows, see where it fits in the best,” Servais said. “I am looking forward to just kind of sitting down with him in a different type of relationship now that he’s not on an active roster and asking him questions and gaining some of his experiences and hopefully it helps me and helps the ball club out.”
It’s a unique circumstance for a unique player.
“During the game I will be doing the same preparations I’ve been doing the entire time. Nothing is going to change for me that I did as a player,” Suzuki said. “But I can’t say for certain that maybe I won’t put on a beard and glasses and be like Bobby Valentine and be in the dugout.”
Officially, the Mariners released Suzuki to clear a spot on the 40-man and 25-man rosters. But retirement was not a word used to describe the transaction. Suzuki is not closing the door to future opportunities and neither are the Mariners. Suzuki joked that when he starts using a cane, that’s when he knows it’s time to retire.
Perhaps the most obvious opportunity on the horizon for Suzuki is the opening of the 2019 season, when Seattle is scheduled to face Oakland for two games in Japan.
“We don’t suspect this closes the book on Ichiro’s career as a player, and potentially a player with the Mariners,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said.
Suzuki had appeared in 15 games this year for the Mariners. He started Wednesday night and went 0-for-3 with a walk and a run scored.
Only a handful of people knew Wednesday was the final game of the 2018 season for Suzuki. Conversations started a few weeks ago about what Suzuki’s role would be after the Mariners returned to full health in their outfield and the final plan was presented to Suzuki on Monday.
Suzuki was nearly the hero, barely missing a hit in the ninth inning of Seattle’s 3-2 loss that sliced a few feet foul with the tying run at second base. Instead, his final at-bat of 2018 was a strikeout.
“Now I don’t feel as bad about walking Ichiro last night,” tweeted Oakland A’s lefty Brett Anderson , who started Wednesday’s game and walked Suzuki in the third inning.
After almost six years away, Suzuki returned this spring to help patch an injury-depleted outfield on the team he played for from 2001 to 2012. Suzuki was signed after Seattle learned Ben Gamel would miss the first few weeks of the regular season and the reunion was a feel-good story of the former star returning to where his career in the majors started.
Suzuki hit .205 in 44 at-bats and all nine of his hits this season were singles. While Suzuki struggled at the plate, he did have a few defensive gems, including robbing Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez of a homer on the opening weekend of the season and reminding everyone of his greatness as an all-around player.
Seattle’s staff and players have raved about Suzuki’s presence in the clubhouse.
“He’s kind of like the Dalai Lama in the clubhouse,” Dipoto said. “You see it on the flights. He’ll sit down in his chair and immediately Dee Gordon is sitting next to him and Mitch Haniger is turning sideways and he’s across the row. The guy in front of him is leaning back in his seat. It’s almost like they’re all waiting for him to opine from the mountain top.”
Suzuki earned the 2001 AL Rookie of the Year and MVP with the Mariners and won a pair of AL batting titles. He was traded to the Yankees midway through 2012, played parts of three seasons with New York, then spent three seasons with Miami.
The 10-time All-Star has a .311 average and 3,089 hits, not including the 1,278 hits he amassed in nine seasons in Japan.
“Obviously, I’m in a different situation now, but I definitely see myself playing again and that’s why I’m going to continue to practice and work to do the things I need to do to continue to get better,” Suzuki said. “It’s hard for me to imagine not playing.”
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