Opening day intrigue: Ichiro keeps ’em guessing about future
TOKYO — This is the Ichiro effect.
Richard Snitzer had never been to Japan. What finally drove the Japanese-American to travel here from his home in Hayward, California, was Ichiro Suzuki; not family ties, not pure wanderlust, but a chance to see a player he called “simply the best.”
And get this. He’s not even a Mariners fan, which he’s advertised by wearing his A’s jersey around the Tokyo Dome.
He’ll be there Wednesday when Major League Baseball opens the 2019 season with Seattle facing Oakland to start a two-game series. The 45-year-old Ichiro is expected to play in both. What happens next? Ichiro isn’t saying.
One thing is sure. It will be great theater.
“I’ll have my phone ready to go, and I’ll shoot and stand up and applaud when he bats,” Snitzer said. “I just hope he doesn’t get the winning hit against the A’s. If he hits a home run that doesn’t affect the game, I’ll be thrilled.”
A’s pitcher Liam Hendriks probably spoke for both teams.
“We’re just happy to be along for the ride,” he said. “I can’t wait for the opening series when they announce Ichiro and hear that crowd.”
Chances are, most baseball fans in other places will be asleep when A’s right-hander Mike Fiers throws the first pitch of the year — around 5:30 a.m. EDT.
That’s OK, there will be plenty of time for everyone to catch up before the other 28 teams open on March 28 at Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and points in-between. Plenty to see, too, in a season that will stretch to end of October — Bryce Harper now batting in Philly, the Boston Red Sox trying to repeat as World Series champions and more talk about changing how the game is played.
In the meantime, Ichiro slipped into Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Friday under the cover of a gray and black cap pulled way down. He’s been highly visible since then; at a rare news conference, showing off in practice with trick catches in right field, and signing autographs to fans lining the foul lines before exhibition games against the Tokyo Giants.
Almost the only shirts for sale in the Tokyo Dome are Ichiro models. And they’re not cheap: between $35-45 for a T-shirt, $62 for a sweat shirt, and a baseball with No. 51 goes for $30.
“Yes, we are selling well because Ichiro is a man of effort,” said Yu Takamiya, a vendor answering questions through his translator app.
Ichiro told reporters on Saturday that — based on spring training — he’s lucky to be here. He hit .080 in Arizona, and he hasn’t played a regular-season game in a year. He was 0 for 6 in two exhibition games against the Tokyo Giants. They don’t count officially. But if they did, he’s hitting .065.
“This is a great gift for me,” he said a day after arriving. “I will treasure every moment here on the field. One week after this event, I will be reflecting back on these days.”
A’s manager Bob Melvin knows Ichiro well from managing the Mariners 15 years ago.
“There are certain guys that create that kind of buzz,” Melvin said. “He’s used to it, but it’s going to be a long few days for him. Once he gets on the field, that’s when you just do your thing and insulate.”
Melvin recalled Ichiro’s relentless training. It hasn’t changed. Ichiro was alone running across the outfield in several practices in Tokyo.
“As far as playing and preparing, there was nobody better,” Melvin said.
A’s outfielder Stephen Piscotty, making his first visit to Japan, called Ichiro “a master.”
“He still in control of his destiny here,” Piscotty said. “He’s pretty special and it’s an honor to be on the field with him. Obviously you look around, and you see how important baseball is in Japan, and Ichiro’s a part of that.”
Other key parts of the upcoming season:
Bryce Harper was the biggest name to change places since last season, leaving the Nationals and signing a record $330 million, 13-year contract with Philadelphia. The Phillies were especially busy, adding J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson. Also on the move were Manny Machado (Padres), Paul Goldschmidt (Cardinals), Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz (Mets), Nelson Cruz (Twins), Patrick Corbin (Nationals) and Josh Donaldson (Braves).
But another slow market for many free agents meant All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel and former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel didn’t have jobs on the brink of a new season.
New Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo quickly showed he’s all for trying new strategy — he played a four-man outfield defense against Harper in spring training. There are six new skippers in the majors this year: Montoyo, David Bell (Reds), Rocco Baldelli (Twins), Chris Woodward (Rangers) and Brandon Hyde (Orioles) are doing this for the first time in the bigs, Brad Ausmus (Angels) has experience.
Despite a lot of discussion, nothing major for this season. No prohibition on shifts, no pitch clocks, and no requirement for pitchers to face at least three batters until next year. No robot umpires for now. One change could affect pennant races this summer — no trades after July 31, so no more deals in late August for an extra player in the postseason.
REPEAT AFTER ME
It’s been quite a while since a team won back-to-back crowns — the Yankees were the last to do it, taking their third straight title in 2000. Now, AL MVP Mookie Betts and the Red Sox will try to stop baseball’s longest gap without a repeat champion. Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers, meanwhile, will try to avoid becoming the first team to lose three straight World Series since star pitcher Christy Mathewson, famed manager John McGraw and the New York Giants fell in 1911-13.
After the Mariners and A’s leave Japan, they’ll return to the United States to finish out spring training games. Then everyone is in action for regular season play on March 28. Among the matchups: Red Sox at Seattle, Baltimore at Yankee Stadium and Arizona at Dodger Stadium. Also, the Cubs will play at Texas — this will be the Rangers’ last season at the park they opened in 1994 before moving into a nearby new home next year.