There's nothing better in spring training than a hot young prospect. So why am I most excited this week about a guy who was getting paid to play before those young guys were even born? Nothing is better than 21-year-old Kyle Tucker hitting four home runs in 25 spring at-bats for the Houston Astros or 23-year-old Billy McKinney becoming the early talk of New York Yankees camp with four home runs of his own.
There's seemingly no way Ichiro is the missing piece the Mariners have been seeking as baseball's longest postseason drought has extended to 17 years, but what if he is? It was 2001 the last time he was the new guy in town in Peoria, Arizona, and he was the spark that sent the Mariners into October the year after Alex Rodriguez left.
They haven't been back to the playoffs since.
No one else from that 2001 Mariners club was available. Every one of them has been retired for at least five years.
Every one but Ichiro.
He's 44 now, and not only hasn't he retired, if you take him at his word, he's not even close to leaving the game yet.
"I think everybody has heard I want to play till I'm 50," he said through a translator at his introductory press conference. "But I always say I want to play at least until I'm 50. Make sure everybody understands that."
Everybody should understand it, and everybody who loves baseball should be thrilled to hear it. You may have spent the winter wondering when J.D. Martinez or Jake Arrieta would get a job. I spent it hoping like heck that we hadn't seen the last of Ichiro.
He's not the hitter he once was. His last All-Star appearance was in 2010, which was also the last time his OPS topped .750 for a full season. It's hard to imagine him being productive if he plays left field 4-5 times a week, which Mariners manager Scott Servais said was possible.
But with the right number of at-bats, he could be good enough to help.
These reunions don't always go well. It sounded like a great idea when the Mariners brought Ken Griffey Jr. back to Seattle in 2009, and he even hit 19 home runs in 117 games that season. But Griffey's batting average for his second Seattle stay was .208, and all that's remembered about it is the story about how he was fast asleep in the clubhouse during a game.
Ichiro might hit .208, but there's no chance he'll be sleeping and no chance anyone is going to sleep through his at-bats, even if he does hit .208.
He should still hit enough to contribute. He'll definitely work as hard as he needs to, as hard as anyone his age or 20 years younger. Work ethic has never been an issue with Ichiro, and Wright Thompson's fine story on ESPN.com details all the work Ichiro did this winter, even when he wasn't sure he'd have a job.
Thompson writes about how Ichiro rents a ballpark near Kobe, Japan, in the winter, about how his ritualized workouts include four jogging laps, baserunning and exactly 50 soft-toss pitches. He does things his own way. Always has.
"I'm not normal," he told Thompson.
Normal guys eventually give in to the realities of age. Even Ichiro will eventually, but it doesn't need to happen yet.
His quest for 50 is a story worth celebrating, and now, maybe it can go along with him being a small part of bringing the Mariners back too. Their long postseason drought has always been something of a puzzle because it's not like they've been terrible for two straight decades. The drought began with a pair of 93-win seasons (pre the addition of the Wild Card Game). Even more recently, they've had seasons of 87 (2014) and 86 (2016) wins.
In a division where the Astros are the overwhelming favorites and the exciting Japanese newcomer is Shohei Ohtani with the Los Angeles Angels, Ichiro and the Mariners go in as underdogs.
That's fine. Ichiro had plenty of doubters the first time around too, a point I made in a Bleacher Report story that ran in 2016 when he got his 3,000th major league hit. Back in 2001, it wasn't that he was too old—he was 27—but there were many who wondered if his style of hitting would work in the big leagues.
It worked so well that he hit .350, was the Rookie of the Year and the Most Valuable Player and won a Gold Glove along with the Slver Slugger Award.
"Ichiro became the face of the franchise in a very short time," said Lou Piniella, who managed the M's then.
He comes back as a returning hero but as more than just a novelty. He stayed 12 years the first time. Twelve years now would take him to 56, so you've got to figure that won't happen.
Then again, wouldn't it make a great story in spring training 2030 if it did?
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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