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The First Spring of Ichiro

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In 1999 the Mariners welcomed a visitor to spring training. This is the story of Ichiro coming to America, playing in a Mariners uniform for the first time, and developing a friendship with Ken Griffey Jr.

Japanese baseball player Ichiro Suzuki(C) listens,
Ichiro on February 28th, 1999, plotting to take over American baseball.
Photo credit should read MIKE FIALA/AFP via Getty Images

Ichiro made his first appearance in newspapers across the United States in mid-September 1994.

In his first full season in the Japanese major leagues, the 20-year-old outfielder for the Orix BlueWave was on the verge of becoming the first player in Japanese baseball history to reach 200 hits in a season and bat .400. He ended the 130-game season with 210 hits, a Pacific League record batting average of .385, a new Nippon Professional Baseball record for reaching base in 69 consecutive games (nice), and the MVP award. In the process he became a mononymous phenomenon.

Not bad for a rookie.

In October, 1994 the Los Angeles Times mused about what an American baseball team would pay to have a player like him, although Ichiro dismissed the idea:

If Ichiro played in the U.S. major leagues, he might have trouble with the speed of American pitchers, said Suguru Egawa, a former star pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants who is now a commentator.

Ichiro disagreed.

“As long as the ball is thrown by a human being, I have the confidence to hit any pitch, no matter how fast it comes,” he said.

“But I’ve never even thought of playing in the major leagues. If I did, I’d probably only hit .250.”

The trouble, as he saw it, was the vast expanse of the American strike zone. He had some experience with it, having played in the Hawaii Winter Baseball League for the Hilo Stars at the end of 1993. The large zone didn’t hold him back, however. He got off to a hot start, hitting .446 through the first three weeks of the season (second place in the league batting leaders was Jason Giambi with a .359 average). Although he ran into a slump toward the end, he spent all winter among the batting average, RBI, stolen bases, and runs scored leaders. Hilo won the Hawaii Winter League title and Ichiro was the only Hilo player to be named to the league all-star team, winning the honor over future Mariner David Holdridge and eventual major leaguers Joe Roa and Bill Mueller.

His time in Hawaii brought him nothing praise. Hilo manager Tim Ireland said of him, “He’s a natural hitter, but you don’t have to be a genius to know that.” On another occasion, Ireland said, “He’s the best hitter in the league at this point. It’s not close.” But even though his offensive prowess stacked up well against top MLB prospects, Ireland only allowed that “he’s going to be a fine player in Japan someday.”

In 1995 Hideo Nomo became the first Japanese player in Major League Baseball since Masanori Murakami pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and 1965. Nomo was an instant success for the Los Angeles Dodgers with his delightfully deceptive delivery. He dominated the National League hitters, earning the NL Rookie of the Year award, a start in the All-Star Game, and 4th place in the Cy Young Award voting. Naturally, newspaper columnists and MLB teams began to wonder who might be the next Nomo. Just as naturally, Ichiro’s name came up in all of these musings.

JAPAN-BASEBALL-ICHIRO
Ichiro with the Orix BlueWave
Photo by -/JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images

Matt Winters, the Florida Marlins’ Japanese consultant, mentioned Ichiro to the Sun Sentinel saying, “He was hitting close to .400...he could be a legitimate 20- to 30-home-run guy, steal 30 bags.” Bobby Valentine, who managed the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Japan Pacific League, compared Ichiro to a young Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey Jr. The Toronto Globe and Mail wrote in 1996:

“Ichiro Suzuki, 21, an outfielder with the Orix Blue Wave, is the current poster boy of Japanese baseball. He’s flirted with a .400 average much of his career, steals bases, makes girls blush and sells just about every consumer product in Japan.”

The papers also noted that Ichiro was not eligible to come to the United States until the 2002 season.

Still, at the end of 1995, Ichiro made his first trip to the continental United States. He was followed by a Japanese camera crew as he traveled across the country. One of his many stops was in Cincinnati, where he had dinner with Ken Griffey Jr.:

(This article from Grantland had links to videos that are no longer available from Ichiro’s trip. There are some screenshots of the videos, which are most definitely worth your time.)

During this trip, Ichiro was not considering playing baseball in the United States. It first became a possibility for him in 1996, when a group of MLB All-Stars came to Japan to face the Japanese All-Stars. In the book Ichiro on Ichiro, he said of the 1996 series:

“The excitement I felt in that series was definitely a turning point. Instead of just something I admired from afar, the majors became a set goal of mine...I thought what a great feeling it was to be able to be with these players who always gave their best, players who feel this way about the game. And it got me excited to think about how even better they must be in regular-season games.”

In 1998, the Mariners signed a working agreement with Ichiro’s team, the Orix BlueWave, and the newspapers began to suggest the agreement could give the Mariners an inside track on acquiring Ichiro when the time came. The same year Mike Piazza began talking about wanting Ichiro at the top of the Dodgers’ lineup, and the Mets and Diamondbacks also expressed interest. Meanwhile, Hideki Irabu, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, and Masato Yoshii—all pitchers—left Japan for success in the United States. Ichiro began to get antsy for his chance.

The MLB All-Stars toured Japan again after the 1998 season, leading to more speculation about Ichiro coming to the United States. In an interview published in the New York Daily News, he said, “I want to be the first player to show what Japanese batters can do in the United States...I’d like to go right away, but I’m not a free agent.”

Some people in major league baseball expressed doubts that he could play well in the major leagues. MLB All-Star manager Mike Hargrove said of Ichiro’s chances in the major leagues, “He’s a slap hitter who can run. I like him, but I think he’d be a fourth or fifth outfielder in the big leagues.” An unnamed MLB player in the New York Daily News article, “expressed amazement yesterday upon hearing that Suzuki was the biggest star in Japanese baseball, and referred to him as ‘a little slap hitter.’”

The article also mentions that “those around him say his dream is to play alongside Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez in Seattle.”

Not long after the MLB All-Stars left Japan, Ichiro got his chance. Thanks to the agreement between the Mariners and the BlueWave, Ichiro received an invitation to visit the Mariners’ spring training camp in Peoria, AZ for two weeks along with two of his teammates, pitchers Nobuyuki Hoshino and Nobuyuki Ebisu.

*****

Ichiro arrived in Peoria, AZ on February 22nd, 1999. He was issued a Mariners uniform that bore the same number he wore in Japan: #51.

It had only been 7 months since Randy Johnson stood atop the mound wearing #51 in a Mariners uniform. The best pitcher in Mariners history was beloved by fans while the Mariners brass determined that he was too old, too washed up, too burdened with chronic back trouble to be worth the contract he would command. So, after months of tension, he was traded to the Houston Astros. The team had a dismal 1998 season all around and finished the year well-below expectations. On the horizon, the pending free agencies of Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez draped the Mariners in anxiety about the future. The sting of the Johnson trade and the bad blood between players and Mariners management hung in the air as spring training began in 1999.

Of course in 1999, no one knew that the Mariners’ next superstar had arrived. They were curious about this outfielder from Japan who wasn’t shy about his desire to play in the American major leagues.

BBA-MARINERS-ICHIRO-INTERVIEW
Ichiro after an interview on February 28th, 1999.
Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images

The team built him up to the newspapers before he even arrived. Mariners president Chuck Armstrong described Ichiro as the “Ken Griffey Jr. of Japan” and conspiratally noted, “He personally has told me one of his dreams is to play in the same outfield as Ken Griffey Jr.” Mariners pitcher Jamie Moyer had played on the MLB All-Star team in Japan that offseason. He shared that while he was there, he talked to Ichiro every day. “His biggest question was always, ‘Can I play in the U.S.?’...it seemed in Japan that he wanted to play for the Mariners,” Moyer said.

Shortstop Alex Rodriguez added to the speculation about a future with Ichiro in the outfield. “He can do a little bit of everything...I’m kind of dreaming that he’s going to be our leadoff hitter. I’m trying to get close to him and convince him to stay.”

Sharing a scouting report, Roger Jongewaard, the Mariners vice president for scouting and player development, gave Ichiro a plus rating for batting average, arm strength, defense, and speed, noting that his power was below average. Jongewaard also said longingly, “He could be a leadoff hitter or a No. 2 hitter and get a couple hundred hits for us, steal some bases. He’d be perfect in our lineup. We’re looking for speed, someone to get on base in front of Alex and Junior.”

The gushing was always followed with caveats, however. Mariners officials were quick to qualify their daydreaming about Ichiro on the roster by reiterating their respect for the agreement with Orix. Still, Ichiro’s free-agency loomed in a few years. Jongewaard explained, “Because of the working agreement with the BlueWave, obviously we’re not trying to steal him away or do anything under the table, but we’d hope our relationship with them, it might be something we could work out down the road.”

Ichiro himself was adamant that he was not there to audition, he said he was there because “I want to feel what it’s like being here for myself.” He said about the possibility of becoming the Nomo of position players, “It doesn’t matter if I’m the first one or not, I just would like the opportunity to do it. I want to face the best in baseball.”

Baseball is said to be a universal language, but the true universal language is the language of money. After Nomo found a loophole in the system that allowed him to jump to the Dodgers, MLB and the NPB came to an agreement about how player transfers would be handled. Ichiro was still a few years away from reaching the free agency that would allow him to come to the MLB. That spring, however, rumors circulated in the newspapers that the Orix BlueWave were in a tough financial situation that wasn’t going to get any better. As the best player in Japan, Ichiro commanded a top salary. The media speculated that the BlueWave might be open to auctioning Ichiro off to a US team in order to correct their financial problems.

*****

BBA-MARINERS-JAPAN-SUZUKI
Ichiro and the baseball paparazzi.
Photo by JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP via Getty Images

While Ichiro was in Peoria, the media swarmed him. Reports and newspaper articles from the Mariners camp paint a delightful picture of the friendship that emerged between him and the Ichiro of the United States. He and Griffey had met over dinner in 1995, but this was the first time they would take the field together. Bob Finnigan of the Seattle Times described their re-introduction to each other:

The way the lockers are set up in the Mariner clubhouse, those of Ichiro Suzuki, the five-time Japanese batting champ, and Griffey are back-to-back.

At one point, Griffey peeked around the corner, saw Suzuki and welcomed him. The two greeted with mutual respect, but Griffey couldn’t play it straight for long.

“Tell Ichiro,” he said to interpreter Ted Heid, a Seattle native who moved to Arizona, “after practice . . . sake.”

Suzuki looked shocked.

“No sake,” Suzuki was able to say in English.. “No drink.”

He then spoke in Japanese and Heid told Griffey, “He thought you didn’t drink.”

“I don’t,” Griffey said. “But after our workout, he might.”

The jocular atmosphere continued into the day’s workouts. Tyler Kepner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted that Ichiro “appeared quite comfortable in his new setting.” He continued:

Suzuki had met Griffey and Rodriguez before and has an especially good read on Griffey. Suzuki wore his cap backward at times and imitated Griffey’s batting style, complete with facial gestures.

This came after Griffey had tried imitating Suzuki’s distinctive front-leg lift in the batter’s box, which resulted in a foul to the dirt.

On the first day of workouts manager Lou Piniella, who wasn’t eager to repeat the disappointing 1998 season (I’ve got some bad news, Lou...), put the players through an uncharacteristic running program. Griffey jokingly complained. He asked Piniella if he could get a head start because he was a veteran player. Referring to the controversy around Mark McGwire’s use of Androstenedione the year before, Griffey told reporters of the running, “I’ll be fine once I take my Andros.”

Ichiro, on the other hand, was impressed with the regimen. “Japanese players hear that the amount of running here is less than they usually have in Japan,” he said, “But that bias is now 180 degrees changed. I had a lot of running today.”

During batting practice, Ichiro was grouped with Griffey, Rodriguez, Tom Lampkin, and Carlos Guillen while Jamie Moyer threw live batting practice. Griffey and Suzuki began to have a serious discussion about their respective hitting approaches and mechanics. Even this conversation resulted in laughter. From The Seattle Times: “Suzuki explained later that Griffey said Suzuki’s exaggerated front foot lift and swing is “a fullback,” while his own more moderate stride into the ball is “a halfback.”

Piniella was impressed with Ichiro. “He does just about everything we try to get our hitters to do,” Lou said. “He keeps his hands back, and uses his legs and the lower half of his body. He is very compact in the hitting area. You can see why this kid has been successful.” After cutoff and relay drills in the outfield, the manager said, “He has a Roberto Clemente arm.” It’s hard to imagine a higher compliment.

The education of Ichiro was multifaceted. He was gathering valuable information about the game of baseball in the United States. He was also learning about off-the-field aspects of playing in the US. An important thing to learn? How to swear like an American.

After being encouraged by Ken Griffey Jr. (who else?) to say to bench coach John McLaren, “Kiss my ass”, he was asked what would happen if he did that to a coach in Japan. Ichiro “grimaced and drew a finger across his throat.”

Seattle Mariners Ichiro Suzuki of Japan (L) and Ma
Ichiro along with his interpreter Ted Heid and Ken Griffey Jr in the dugout, no doubt getting up to some trouble.
Photo credit should read JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP via Getty Images

Sports Illustrated ran an item on Ichiro’s stay in Arizona. After running through a summary of Ichiro’s career and the agreement between the Mariners and the BlueWave, it ended with this:

The Mariners’ guest of honor has also picked up some American baseball slang. He says, “What’s up?” like Griffey, and when asked on Sunday how things were going, Ichiro grinned and said in English, “Same old s---, every f------- day.”

It wasn’t just the American media that followed Ichiro’s every move that spring. Japanese outlets sent reporters to Peoria to report back home as well. The estimates of the media mob size vary, but it seems as though approximately 100 extra reporters, and their attendant television and still cameras, were milling around the Mariners facility. To promote their guest, the Mariners started a daily “Ichiro Journal” on the team website to chronicle each day he was in camp. They also opted to broadcast the spring training opener against the Padres so the fans back home in Seattle could catch a glimpse of Ichiro for themselves.

Ichiro was set to play four games with the Mariners before he headed back to Japan. He would bat leadoff and have the green light to run any time he got on base. All four games were scheduled to be broadcast in Japan, beginning at 5 AM for the fans at home. The prime lineup position and freedom to run meant everyone was eager to watch what he could do.

The first game of the spring is traditionally a charity game against the Mariners’ Peoria roommates, the San Diego Padres. So it was in 1999. Ichiro stepped in as the game’s first batter. He reached on an error at third base and took advantage of his green light to steal second. From there, he advanced to third on another error. Ken Griffey Jr. came to the plate and grounded into a double play that scored Ichiro.

In his next at bat in the third inning, Ichiro singled for his first hit in a Mariners uniform. His arm took center stage later in the game when he almost threw out a runner advancing to third on a fly ball. He would have nailed the runner at third had he not nailed the sliding runner in the back.

Seattle Mariners Ichiro Suzuki of Japan runs to fi
Ichiro’s first hit in a Mariners uniform, March 4th, 1999.
Photo credit should read JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP via Getty Images

Afterwards, Ichiro talked about his first game with American major leaguers. “Before the game, the other players told me just to enjoy myself. I did. I had been looking forward for so long to playing here, to playing alongside Ken Griffey, that I was prepared for it and it was as exciting as I expected it to be.”

Piniella had nothing but praise for Ichiro’s performance. “He’s a good-looking athlete. He got on base twice, scored a couple of runs and would have thrown a guy out at third base if the ball hadn’t hit the runner in the back… You can tell he’s a pro by the way he goes about his business. He wasn’t nervous. He was having fun and enjoying himself with Junior and Alex.’’

That evening, Ichiro went out to celebrate his debut with dinner. He ordered some good old fashioned American barbequed ribs and promptly spent the night throwing up his meal.

The next day he was still suffering from severe nausea, so he did not play in the second game of his stay. Several Japanese media members also fell ill at about the same time. Their illnesses were blamed on the desert climate, rather than the American food though.

Ichiro was back in the lineup for his third scheduled game in Arizona even though he was still working through his upset stomach when he showed up for the day. Luckily, the team had Ken Griffey Jr. to tend to him:

Finding out that Suzuki was still feeling the effects of the upset stomach that scratched him from Friday’s game in Mesa, Griffey had the Japanese outfielder drink a glass of emitrol [sic], followed by a cup of water, and poured a cup of Gatorade for Suzuki to sip.

“Edgar is the team specialist on hamstrings, Jay on ankles and elbows,” Griffey said, “and me for wrists and upset stomachs.

Ichiro only played two innings that day. He had two at bats in which he struck out and flew out.

He didn’t play at all in the fourth game of his visit. He had a long flight home to Kobe, Japan the next day and he was still recovering from his bout of food poisoning. Nobuyuki Ebisu, his BlueWave teammate, told reporters that Ichiro “is very, very disappointed. Ichiro has won five batting titles in a row, but this may even be more disappointing than if he did not win a batting championship, because this is his dream. He wants to show what he can do, but because of sickness he could not do it.”

Ichiro sadly packed his spring locker. He brought back to Japan bats signed by several Mariners. He had photographs of himself in a Mariners uniform. He tucked away autographed baseballs for his coaches and friends in Japan. Then, he left on a jet plane.

On April 1st, 1999 someone wrote on a white board in the Mariners clubhouse, “Ayala for Ichero.”

Although his stay had been cut short, Ichiro left an impression. There was no way to know what was to come for him and the Mariners when he left Peoria, AZ. He was as sure as ever that he wanted to play in the American major leagues though, and he wanted to do it with the Mariners.

Whether it was destiny, or whether it happened through the sheer force of his will, in a couple years Ichiro became a Mariner.

And the rest is history.

Japanese baseball player Ichiro Suzuki practices s
Ichiro, sliding into the MLB record books.
Photo credit should read MIKE FIALA/AFP via Getty Images

Sources:

  1. JAMESON, SAM. “A DIFFERENT BALLGAME: HE HAS A MILLION-DOLLAR SEASON IN JAPAN, BUT WON’T GET NEAR THAT.” THE LOS ANGELES TIMES (CA), October 12, 1994: C1.
  2. BORSCH, FERD. “SHINING OPENER FOR STARS.” THE HONOLULU ADVERTISER (HI), October 14, 1993: D1.
  3. JAKAHI, KEVIN. “SUZUKI BRIGHTEST STAR FOR HILO.” HAWAII TRIBUNE-HERALD (HILO, HI), October 22, 1993: 15.
  4. By Toronto Globe and Mail. “NOMO SUCCESS TURNING HEADS.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 14, 1996: 6F.
  5. Komatsu, Narumi, Ichiro on Ichiro: Conversations with Narumi Komatsu (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2004), 86,87-88.
  6. HILL, THOMAS. “BIG-LEAGUE GOAL IS DRIVING SUZUKI.” New York Daily News (NY), November 9, 1998: 60.
  7. HOYNES, PAUL. “BIG-LEAGUE STRIKE ZONE GETS LOST IN THE TRANSLATION.” Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH), November 29, 1998: 17C.
  8. KEPNER, TYLER. “JAPANESE SLUGGER IN FOR A LOOK - SUZUKI’S CAMP VISIT MORE THAN GOODWILL.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 22, 1999: E1
  9. KEPNER, TYLER. “ORIX STAR RUNS WELL WITH THE BIG DOGS - CAMP WORKOUT ALTERS SUZUKI’S PERCEPTIONS.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 24, 1999: C2.
  10. KEPNER, TYLER. “ANOTHER GRIFFEY (JAPAN’S) STEPS UP - SUZUKI THE NOMO OF POSITION PLAYERS?.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 3, 1999: D1.
  11. FINNIGAN, BOB. “JUNIOR TAKES POKES AS M’S CAMP OPENSTARGETS INCLUDE TARDY A- ROD, JAPANESE STAR.” THE SEATTLE TIMES, February 24, 1999: D1.
  12. FINNIGAN, BOB. “SUZUKI REVS FOR MATCHUP WITH SUZUKI.” THE SEATTLE TIMES, February 25, 1999: D2.
  13. FINNIGAN, BOB. “STARTING PITCHERS WILL GET MORE WORK.” THE SEATTLE TIMES, March 4, 1999: C4.
  14. FINNIGAN, BOB. “M’S NOTEBOOKBUHNER IN OUTFIELD MARCH 10.” THE SEATTLE TIMES, March 3, 1999: D7.
  15. “SPEEDY SUZUKI.” SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, March, 8, 1999: 36.
  16. FINNIGAN, BOB. “BIG UNIT WANTS TO PITCH AGAINST M’S.” THE SEATTLE TIMES, March 5, 1999: D2.
  17. Thiel, Art. “THE BIG WOO: M’S FORGE TIES WITH JAPANESE.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 5, 1999: E1.
  18. FINNIGAN, BOB. “JOHNSON TRADE LOOKING BETTER AND BETTER FOR M’S.” THE SEATTLE TIMES, March 7, 1999: D5.
  19. KEPNER, TYLER. “SUZUKI CAN’T GET IN GEAR - JAPANESE STAR’S VISIT ENDS ON DOWN NOTE.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 8, 1999: D2.