SEATTLE – Much about the start to this Mariners season is a bit off-kilter. But that stands to reason, I suppose, in a year of such seismic change and philosophical recalibration.
For one thing, the Mariners are playing games that count in the middle of March, while 28 other teams are still working out their winter kinks. They will be contesting those first two games on another continent, in the wee hours of Wednesday and Thursday mornings in Seattle, unseen by all but the hardiest fans.
But the most jarring element to the start of the Mariners’ 2019 season involves their two legends, Ichiro and Felix Hernandez, stuck in various states of uneasy limbo.
How they untangle those threads will provide a good portion of the Mariners’ early drama.
Ichiro, maybe the worst hitter in all of the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues this spring, will nevertheless be in the opening-day lineup for the Mariners against Oakland at the Tokyo Dome.
I don’t know which is more incongruous – that Ichiro is getting the nod for the opener, or that Felix is not. The King on the mound to start the season has become a rite of spring in Seattle.
But here we are. Permission to talk frankly: Neither Ichiro nor Felix – both are first-name-only icons – is long for this team. If this were a normal season, in fact, Ichiro’s wretched spring (2 for 31 with 10 strikeouts) would have led the Mariners to gently and tactfully ease him off the roster.
And if finances weren’t a factor, it’s hard to imagine that a pitcher whose ERA has risen in four consecutive seasons, all the way to 5.55 in 2018, and who was sporting an ERA north of 15 in the spring with absolutely no signs of pending mastery, would make it into the regular season.
But this isn’t a normal season. For one thing, wins and losses aren’t at the top of the Mariners’ priority list. In that dynamic, I don’t think anyone begrudges Ichiro a ceremonial send-off in his homeland, where he is beloved almost beyond comprehension.
And finances are a factor. No club is going to throw away $27 million, Hernandez’s salary in the (mercifully) final year of his contract, without first seeing if it can get something, anything, out of him.
The challenge facing the Mariners, which may be unsolvable, is to usher these two players out, as will inevitably be the outcome, with a minimum of hard feelings, and with the reverence their careers have earned.
One thing we’ve learned in Seattle sports is that it’s not easy to leave town with goodwill and mutual affection – at least not at the beginning.
We’ve seen that play out the past few years on the Seahawks with Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Earl Thomas. We saw it on the Mariners with Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, even Lou Piniella. We saw it on the Sonics with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.
Not to contradict The Bard, but in sports, parting can be sour sorrow. But we’ve also seen that in most cases, time heals the wounds – on both sides.
Times reporter Ryan Divish has reported that Ichiro will be removed from the Mariners’ 40-man roster soon after the Japan trip. It is the only possible outcome. Though I wrote this winter that I wouldn’t have a problem with Seattle keeping Ichiro this season for ceremonial and mentoring reasons, that was before I saw him play this spring. He looked every second of 45 years old.
Time moves in only one direction, and the sad reality is that Ichiro has reached the end of the line, whether or not he acknowledges it. And I suspect he is finally ready to.
We keep saying farewell to Ichiro in Seattle. We did so when he was traded to the Yankees in 2012, and again when the Mariners took him off the active roster last May. I sense the final farewell will take place in or around the opening weekend of the home season, and Ichiro deserves every bit of adulation that I anticipate will, once again, be bathed upon him.
Felix presents a far thornier dilemma. He turns 33 on April 8, not an age when a proud athlete concedes defeat. For a long while, Hernandez didn’t show the willingness to acknowledge that a change in pitching style was necessitated by his waning power. And now that the realization may finally be hitting home, he hasn’t shown the capacity to forge a new style that will make him effective.
Of course, spring training is just spring training, unless you’re 45, and maybe Felix is holding back for games that count. Maybe the renaissance of The King will play out in real time, starting April 2 against the Angels.
Or maybe not. Either way, these are the end days for Felix Hernandez in Seattle. He’ll pitch his way out of here one way or the other – it seems inevitable – by being so good that someone else wants him, or so bad that no one does.
There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground, at least the sort that’s palatable for both sides. As such, there’s an undeniable tension that surrounds Hernandez these days, and it doesn’t bode well. There’s also an undeniable melancholy, for reasons that don’t have to be spelled out.
I sincerely hope it doesn’t end in acrimony, because Hernandez’s body of work, like Ichiro’s, warrants a tidy end. I feel confident his adulation will come, too. Eventually.
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