One of the stops on his visit was to Cincinnati, Ohio. Ichiro was there to have dinner with Ken Griffey Jr., one of the most iconic players ever to play the game. Both players met with handshakes, then sat together at the table. To Ichiro’s amazement, Griffey presented his new friend with his very own number 24 jersey. The two even discussed the possibility of playing with each other someday, with Ichiro expressing a desire to play in the major leagues and the Seattle Mariners.
The dinner that night is likely the moment Ichiro’s journey to Seattle-Pacific Northwest began. Griffey and Ichiro’s first meet would be the first of two occasions where their paths would cross. From being a star in Japan, Ichiro would become the first Japanese position player in MLB history.
Ichiro’s Dominance In Japan
Stats: .353/.421/.522/.943, 118 HR, 529 RBI, 199 SB in nine seasons.
As an 18-year old, Ichiro made his professional baseball debut with the BlueWave. He would spend most of his first two seasons in the farm system. At 20-years old, he set a league record with a .385 batting average, winning his first of seven league batting titles. But nothing was more impressive than his 1995 season. Ichiro reached new heights as a baseball player.
He finished with 49 steals and 25 home runs while earning his second of three Pacific League MVP awards. His talent would help the BlueWave earn its first pennant in 12 years. The following season and the Orix would defeat the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series. In nine seasons, Ichiro had 1,278 hits and a career .353 batting average. Then came the fall of 1998, where Ichiro played in a seven-game exhibition series.
The Japanese All-Stars were up against the American All-Stars, but Ichiro stole the show with seven stolen bases and batted .380 in the series. His performance against MLB’s best, plus the dinner with Griffey, kindled his interest to play in the Major Leagues. By the time he was 26-years old in 2000, he had decided it was time to match up against the major leagues’ best ballplayers. Ichiro’s time in Japan came to a finish. It was time for the next chapter of his baseball career.
Ichiro Heads To The Pacific Northwest
The BlueWave was no longer one of the best teams in the league, but the team couldn’t afford Ichiro. Orix allowed him to negotiate with Major League teams during the winter of 2000. Ichiro used the posting system to gain international free agency, allowing him to speak with any Major League club. The sweepstakes for Ichiro didn’t even last long. On November 20, 2000, the Seattle Mariners won the right to deal with him.
With a three-year $13 million contract, Seattle beat out the New York Mets for the rights for baseball’s latest foreign phenomenon. Mariners General manager Pat Gillick said the plan was to have Ichiro play in right field while batting as the leadoff hitter. While it wasn’t an ethnic move on Gillick or the Mariners, the signing was just a pure baseball decision. Ichiro was coming to an organization with a massive Japanese presence. Hiroshi Yamauchi, then owner of the Mariners, is Japanese. His team ownership was a major development for baseball because it opened the door for Japanese players to come to the majors. But most of all, Yamauchi was the third president of Nintendo from 1949-2002.
Seattle was happy with their newest addition. As for Ichiro, he was excited about his next opportunity. Seattle’s newest product comes following the departures of Griffey and Alex Rodriguez.
Ichiro’s Rookie Season
There were lots of doubts before Ichiro came to the majors. Not one Japanese player lasted 50 games in a single season. Nevertheless, Ichiro was ready to prove doubters wrong, despite being in a foreign country. Ichiro was far away from home in a city he’s just getting adjusted to. Being in a new environment can be challenging.
That’s kind of how Ichiro started his major-league career. In his first game, he earned two hits with a strikeout. The next game, he had no hits but another strikeout. The Mariners knew Ichiro would produce, but things started to click real quick during Ichiro’s rookie season. Ichiro came back the third game that began a 16-game hitting streak.
In the fourth game, he had his first four-hit game of the season. By Memorial Day weekend, Ichiro had a .375 batting average, leading the league in that category. Once the season was complete, Ichiro did what he exactly had done back in Japan. He was an All-Star; he led the league with a .350 batting average, 242 hits, and 56 stolen bases. Ichiro wasn’t just a hitter, but a consistent batter to the point where he struck out 7.2% out of his 738 plate appearances.
Ichiro’s historic rookie season came with accolades, including his first of ten Gold Glove Awards. However, there were a few more things he did. Ichiro helped the Mariners to a 116-win season. Seattle tied the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the greatest regular season in baseball history. He became the second player in baseball history to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Fred Lynn is the only other player to win both awards in the same season.
It All Comes Together For Ichiro
Ichiro would spend his first 12 seasons with the Mariners. By the end of his tenure in the Pacific Northwest, Ichiro and his longtime pal Griffey finally reunited once again. Fourteen years after they first met, they became teammates when Griffey signed with the Mariners as a free agent in 2009.
Griffey returned to the city where his career began, but only until the early part of the 2010 season. While he did struggle due to his age, Griffey would call it a career on May 31. Six years later, Griffey was elected an inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame. One day, both players will be together again when Ichiro is first eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot in 2025.
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