What’s the harm? If healthy, no reason Ichiro can’t play for Mariners this season

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If you thought we had heard the last of Ichiro as a major-league ballplayer when he stepped into his murky role as “Special Assistant to the Chairman” last May 3, you weren’t paying attention.

Never once on that day, or any days that have followed, has Ichiro uttered the “r” word – retirement. And as the 2019 season nears, rest assured that Ichiro, now 45, goes into it with every intention of being an active Mariners player.

And no, I’m not just talking about the two season-opening games in Tokyo, March 20-21, when both the Mariners and A’s will be allowed to expand their roster to 28. It was apparent from the moment Ichiro stepped aside as a player last year that the ballclub planned to activate him for those games.

It was just too perfect a scenario, a chance for Ichiro to soak in the adulation he warranted as the most celebrated Japanese player of all time. And at Yusei Kikuchi’s introductory news conference last week, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto confirmed as much when he said, flat-out, “Ichi will be on our team when we go to Tokyo. He’ll be an active player.”

So that’s a given. What I’m talking about is Ichiro remaining on the roster when the Mariners’ re-open the season stateside at Safec—, oops, T-Mobile Park on March 28 against the World Series champion Red Sox. By every account, that is Ichiro’s goal – not a ceremonial two-off at the Tokyo Dome.

“I don’t think he’s pursuing this as a very short-term situation,’’ Ichiro’s agent, John Boggs, told me on Tuesday. “I don’t think he prepares himself for anything like that. He’s in fantastic shape. He fully intends on earning a spot on that ballclub.”

And you know what? I’m OK with that.

Yes, I’m the same guy who wrote last April that it was time for the Mariners to release Ichiro (a few days before his playing days ended, at least for the year).

But those were starkly different circumstances. That was a Seattle team fully intent on securing a playoff spot, and seemingly capable of doing so. Ichiro, with his minimal offensive contribution (he wound up hitting .205 in 44 at-bats, with all nine of his hits being singles) was impeding that quest.

As we all know, the Mariners’ circumstances have changed dramatically. They have shipped off most of their leading contributors in a major strategic shift aimed at becoming a contender a few years down the road. The 2019 season will be about many things – nurturing the new young talent, perhaps dealing a few more of the remaining veterans if they show early signs of life – but it won’t be about fighting for a playoff spot.

In that new environment, I can envision a role for Ichiro beyond being a glorified cheerleader, as was the case last year. What better example for work ethic and preparation is there to show the youngsters than Ichiro, who even last year, knowing that he wouldn’t play the rest of the season, still trained as if he was an active player?

And since the M’s have jettisoned most of the players for whom fans had developed an affinity, it might be nice to suit up someone that everyone would get a kick out of watching perform.

I acknowledge that a 45-year-old outfielder who is a shadow of his Hall of Fame self does not fit neatly onto a rebuilding team. But at this stage of his career, Ichiro is fully content being a bench player with sporadic playing time. The Mariners will already have several players who don’t really figure into their long-term plans, such as (barring trades) Jay Bruce, Edwin Encarnacion and Anthony Swarzak.

Why not another one? And not just anyone, but one of the most storied players in franchise history? I don’t see much downside in letting a player of Ichiro’s stature go out on his terms (although to be fair, Ichiro is still steadfast in his intentions of playing until he’s 50, and doesn’t seem to have any thought of “going out” quite yet).

All this is contingent, of course, on Ichiro getting through training camp and the Japan games healthy. At his age, that’s no guarantee, even for someone of his fitness level. It was a calf injury last spring that contributed to Ichiro’s slow start and poor performance.

Dipoto certainly didn’t slam the door on the possibility of an active Ichiro playing beyond Japan, however. While acknowledging the need to develop his prospective starting outfielders, Mitch Haniger in right, Mallex Smith in center and Domingo Santana in left, and also finding at-bats for Bruce, Dipoto offered a form of the same sentiment that has been spoken for two decades: Don’t ever under-estimate Ichiro.

“Frankly, if he rolls out in Tokyo and gets seven hits in two games, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll play a third game’’ Dipoto said. “You have to adjust as you go. We’re not going to predetermine anything. We’ll give him the opportunity to come in and do what he does, and prepare the way he prepares.”

And if it’s clear that Ichiro just doesn’t have it, or the Mariners can’t find a way to squeeze him on the roster, would Ichiro return to his special assistant role?

“We want Ichiro to be part of the Mariners in perpetuity,’’ he said. “But if you talk to Ichi, he is so focused on this, and he knows he can still play. We can’t cross that bridge until we get to that bridge. Because anything more than that would be predetermining an outcome and he won’t be able to focus on those games.”

At the very least, the Mariners will have some intrigue this spring, with Ichiro providing much of it, 18 years after he first showed up in Peoria and electrified the ballclub as well as the sport.

This season, you take what you can get.

Stone is a columnist for the Seattle Times.

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