Ichiro could single-handedly save the Home Run Derby
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.”