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Out of Right Field: Ichiro’s farewell, M’s ‘Opening Day’ lost in translation

March 21, 2019

If a baseball legend plays his final two big league games in the middle of the night local time, did it really happen?

Like a tree falling in the forest, we’ll have to trust that Ichiro’s swan song took place overnight, since the Seattle Mariners’ second and final game of their season-opening series against the Oakland Athletics was scheduled at 2:35 a.m. Thursday.

On Tuesday morning, the venerable outfielder started for the M’s on “Opening Day” in front of 45,787 at the Tokyo Dome, going 0 for 1 with a walk before exiting somewhat awkwardly in the bottom of the fourth inning.

The Mariners and A’s were allowed expanded 28-man rosters for the two-game opening series in Japan – since the games are essentially still in the middle of Spring Training – allowing the M’s the luxury of carrying the 45-year-old former star on their roster to the delight of those gathered there in person.

It’s just a shame that the time difference prohibited all but the most rabid (or sleep deprived) of the M’s fan base from witnessing the final plate appearances of a player that meant so much to the organization and the game.

I get it. It’s important for MLB to grow the game across the world – even though some of the new rule changes seem to want to destroy the fabric of the game from the inside.

But shouldn’t the grandeur and pageantry of Opening Day be reserved for the fans that support the club all season long?

Ichiro’s final go-around with the Mariners hasn’t been without its charm, but also hasn’t been without a few warts, either.

The team signed him last spring out of desperation – a rash of injuries to outfield regulars meant Ichiro was actually needed to begin the season in the starting lineup.

But it quickly became apparent that the veteran was at the end of his usefulness on the playing field – he hit .205 over 15 games –and in May he transitioned from the active roster into a role as special assistant, albeit one that still took batting practice and remained a fixture around the clubhouse.

Absolutely no one took umbrage to the idea, and perhaps this Tokyo trip – and Ichiro’s role in it – was being eyed from the beginning, so it made sense that he remained around the team last year and during the offseason.

He’s been absolutely fawned upon the past week – by fans and media alike – as the Mariners took part in one promotional event after another leading up to the two-game set against the A’s.

It was probably a good thing that the M’s newest Japanese import, Yusei Kikuchi, had a front-row seat to the whole thing.

Let’s face it: Even though these games count against the regular-season record for the two teams, it’s not like they mean that much more, with the M’s firmly – and finally – entrenched in an admitted rebuilding season.

If there ever were a right time for this type of sentimentality, this was it.

But if the whole point of the M’s participating in the Japan opener was to celebrate Ichiro and all that he’s done for the Mariners and baseball in general in the Pacific Northwest, that point was unfortunately lost in translation – and a 16-hour time difference – while most M’s fans were sleeping.

Now, what happens when the M’s get back on American soil later in the week? Or next Thursday, when GM Jerry Dipoto must pare the roster down to the standard 25-man limit when the regular season starts for everybody?

To this point, Ichiro has remained steadfast that this isn’t a marketing ploy or retirement party – he has stated he wants to continue to play.

“A 45-year-old baseball player really shouldn’t be thinking about the future,” Ichiro told USA Today on Feb. 16. “It’s about today. I’m just going to take it day by day and we’ll get to that point where it does come.”

But his 2-for-28 Spring Training performance is a further reminder that time waits for no man – or professional baseball player. Ichiro may be in fabulous shape for a 45-year old, but his reflexes and timing prove otherwise.

Will Ichiro go off into the sunset quietly, proudly, head held high with the knowledge he was allowed a special dispensation to end his Hall of Fame career where it started? Or will he continue what would be a quixotic pursuit to find playing time in a game that has passed him by?

For all Mariners fans, I hope it’s the former.