Opening day intrigue: Ichiro keeps ‘em guessing about future

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TOKYO (AP) — This is the Ichiro effect.

Richard Snitzer had never been to Japan. What finally drove the Japanese-American to travel here from his home in Hayward, California, was Ichiro Suzuki; not family ties, not pure wanderlust, but a chance to see a player he called “simply the best.”

And get this. He’s not even a Mariners fan, which he’s advertised by wearing his A’s jersey around the Tokyo Dome.

He’ll be there Wednesday when Major League Baseball opens the 2019 season with Seattle facing Oakland to start a two-game series. The 45-year-old Ichiro is expected to play in both. What happens next? Ichiro isn’t saying.

One thing is sure. It will be great theater.

“I’ll have my phone ready to go, and I’ll shoot and stand up and applaud when he bats,” Snitzer said. “I just hope he doesn’t get the winning hit against the A’s. If he hits a home run that doesn’t affect the game, I’ll be thrilled.”

A’s pitcher Liam Hendriks probably spoke for both teams.

“We’re just happy to be along for the ride,” he said. “I can’t wait for the opening series when they announce Ichiro and hear that crowd.”

Chances are, most baseball fans in other places will be asleep when A’s right-hander Mike Fiers throws the first pitch of the year — around 5:30 a.m. EDT.

That’s OK, there will be plenty of time for everyone to catch up before the other 28 teams open on March 28 at Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and points in-between. Plenty to see, too, in a season that will stretch to end of October — Bryce Harper now batting in Philly, the Boston Red Sox trying to repeat as World Series champions and more talk about changing how the game is played.

In the meantime, Ichiro slipped into Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Friday under the cover of a gray and black cap pulled way down. He’s been highly visible since then; at a rare news conference, showing off in practice with trick catches in right field, and signing autographs to fans lining the foul lines before exhibition games against the Tokyo Giants.

Almost the only shirts for sale in the Tokyo Dome are Ichiro models. And they’re not cheap: between $35-45 for a T-shirt, $62 for a sweat shirt, and a baseball with No. 51 goes for $30.

“Yes, we are selling well because Ichiro is a man of effort,” said Yu Takamiya, a vendor answering questions through his translator app.

Ichiro told reporters on Saturday that — based on spring training — he’s lucky to be here. He hit .080 in Arizona, and he hasn’t played a regular-season game in a year. He was 0 for 6 in two exhibition games against the Tokyo Giants. They don’t count officially. But if they did, he’s hitting .065.

“This is a great gift for me,” he said a day after arriving. “I will treasure every moment here on the field. One week after this event, I will be reflecting back on these days.”

A’s manager Bob Melvin knows Ichiro well from managing the Mariners 15 years ago.

“There are certain guys that create that kind of buzz,” Melvin said. “He’s used to it, but it’s going to be a long few days for him. Once he gets on the field, that’s when you just do your thing and insulate.”

Melvin recalled Ichiro’s relentless training. It hasn’t changed. Ichiro was alone running across the outfield in several practices in Tokyo.

“As far as playing and preparing, there was nobody better,” Melvin said.

A’s outfielder Stephen Piscotty, making his first visit to Japan, called Ichiro “a master.”

“He still in control of his destiny here,” Piscotty said. “He’s pretty special and it’s an honor to be on the field with him. Obviously you look around, and you see how important baseball is in Japan, and Ichiro’s a part of that.”

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