Ichiro could sin­gle-hand­edly save the Home Run Derby

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY DAVE SHEININ Wash­ing­ton Post

He stretches his limbs metic­u­lously for a mo­ment that never comes. He rides the team bus, at­tends the team meet­ings and takes his hacks in bat­ting prac­tice Group 3 in the af­ter­noon sun, send­ing ball af­ter ball sail­ing over the right-field fence, start­ing in the gap and work­ing his way to the foul pole. He dresses in full Seat­tle Mariners uni­form and spends much of the game stay­ing loose, stay­ing pre­pared, with dozens of ad­di­tional hacks in the in­door bat­ting cage.

And he does all this know­ing there is no chance of his get­ting into the game, zero chance of his be­ing ac­ti­vated at any point in 2018, ow­ing to the Ma­jor League Base­ball rules that gov­erned his un­usual tran­si­tion from out­fielder to “spe­cial as­sis­tant to the chair­man” in May.

But when the Mariners win, he waits in the tun­nel — barred by rule from be­ing in the dugout dur­ing the game — and sprints onto the field to join the vic­to­ri­ous hand­shake line.

He is Ichiro, and he is a trea­sure — an in­scrutable, enig­matic, Coop­er­stown­bound trea­sure.

“He’s the Michael Jor­dan of our game,” Mariners man­ager Scott Ser­vais said. “Maybe not in this coun­try, but in Ja­pan and other ar­eas, he is.

He’s that fa­mous. We’ve had a lot of fun hav­ing him around ev­ery day.”

If only there were some way to bring more Ichiro to the sport, some way to put on in­ter­na­tional dis­play this base­ball trea­sure — some grand, made-for-tele­vi­sion ex­trav­a­ganza with mal­leable el­i­gi­bil­ity rules that might be el­e­vated by Ichiro’s par­tic­i­pa­tion, as well as his sneaky-but-leg­endary home run prow­ess. Well, of course, there is. Memo to MLB: Put Ichiro in the Home Run Derby on July 16 at Na­tion­als Park. It is too per­fect. And it is ap­par­ently not out of the ques­tion.

The idea orig­i­nated with the Mariners’ coaches, some of whom had thrown BP to Ichiro and mar­veled at the stun­ning power he had rarely un­leashed in games — Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if Ichiro was in the Derby? — and took a gi­ant leap when Ser­vais halfjok­ingly pro­posed it dur­ing a ra­dio in­ter­view two weeks ago.

But the idea had legs — or per­haps arms. While Ichiro, now 44, hit only 117 homers among his 3,089 hits in parts of 18 big league sea­sons, with a high of 15 in 2005, his epic BP ses­sions hinted at the power he pos­sessed if he had wanted to be that type of hit­ter.

“He makes it look pretty easy,” said Mariners backup catcher Chris Her­mann, who is part of Ichiro’s daily BP group. “He can jack ‘em out. Some­times, he’ll take six cuts in one round [of BP], and all six will be bombs. Ev­ery­one knows him as a slaps­in­gle, just-get-on-base type of hit­ter, but if he ever wanted to hit home runs, he could def­i­nitely do it.”

But what are the chances we might see Ichiro un­der the lights at Na­tion­als Park on July 16, along­side some of the top slug­gers in the game?

Ichiro de­clined an in­ter­view re­quest at Cam­den Yards this week dur­ing a se­ries with the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles, but when asked ear­lier dur­ing a se­ries in New York about Ser­vais’ pro­posal, he told re­porters, “Right now, I’m not a player. … I think it’s just a joke, to be hon­est with you.”

But as some noted at the time, that was not a “no.”

Asked Thurs­day about the pos­si­bil­ity, MLB chief com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer Pat Court­ney said, “We’re still in the process of mak­ing the Home Run Derby ros­ters,” and de­clined to ad­dress Ichiro specif­i­cally.

But notably, that also was not a “no.”

The chances of Ichiro be­ing in­vited as one of the eight en­trants in the Derby — the ros­ters are typ­i­cally set the week be­fore — could de­pend upon how many All-Stars agree to par­tic­i­pate, and how many de­cline. All-Star play­ers are given first right-ofre­fusal, but Gian­carlo Stan­ton was not an Al­lS­tar when he won the Derby in 2016 in San Diego and last year’s ros­ter in Mi­ami in­cluded Mar­lins slug­ger Justin Bour, an­other non-All-Star.

This year, among likely All-Stars, de­fend­ing cham­pion Aaron Judge of the New York Yan­kees has al­ready said he will sit out the derby, and Bos­ton Red Sox slug­gers Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez have also said pub­licly they are out. Other po­ten­tial can­di­dates, such as Gian­carlo Stan­ton and Mike Trout, have been non­com­mit­tal. Na­tion­als slug­ger Bryce Harper has said he will par­tic­i­pate only if he is cho­sen as an All-Star.

League of­fi­cials are con­fi­dent the Derby com­mit­ments will be­gin to flow in once All-Star ros­ters are set — “It may not be Aaron Judge, but we will have a com­ple­ment of play­ers who can put on a great Derby,” Com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred said last month — but there re­mains no good ar­gu­ment against nam­ing Ichiro as a par­tic­i­pant.

He would add some much-needed juice to an event that could use some.

It would also pro­vide a fit­ting and proper good­bye on these shores to one of the sin­gu­lar tal­ents the game has seen — the best Ja­panese-born player in MLB his­tory, a two-time bat­ting champ, 10-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove win­ner, who will al­most cer­tainly be a first­bal­lot electee to the Hall of Fame.

“To­day’s play­ers didn’t get the chance to see Ichiro in his prime the way my gen­er­a­tion did,” said Ser­vais, 51. “With his im­pact around the world, I think it would be a pretty spe­cial thing.”

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