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Ichiro (Photo by Andrew Woolley)[/caption] DENVER
—In the aftermath of the 2000 season the Mariners were in need of a pick-me-up. Yes, they were coming off three postseason appearances in six years, and had put together a five-year run that produced that the five best attendance totals in franchise history. However, All-Star shortstop Alex Rodriguez
had followed free agency to the Rangers, which came after Ken Griffey Jr., had been traded to the Reds the previous offseason, and that followed the trade of Randy Johnson to the Astros in July of 1998 in advance of his free agency. Along came Ichiro Suzuki
, the first position player to make the move from the Japanese professional leagues to Major League Baseball, and all he did was become a fixture in the Mariners lineup for 11 1/2 years. The Mariners' pursuit of Suzuki was sparked by the fact that Ichiro was a favorite of then-majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, the head of Nintendo, who made it clear he didn't care what it cost to sign the Japanese star. And on Sunday, Ichiro became the 30th player in Major League Baseball history to amass 3,000 hits, the first 2,533 of which came in his 11 1/2 years with the Mariners. "There was a mystery about him," said Randy Adamack, Mariners senior vice president of communications. "He had been in a star in Japan, but now he was coming over here. He had his first name, Ichiro, on the back of his uniform." Ichiro provided a quick answer to all questions, joining Fred Lynn of the 1976 Red Sox as the only players to win the regular-season MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season. And he became the first player ever to win those awards, and also claim the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards, and start in an All-Star Game that first year. An All-Star Game, it should be added, in which he received more votes from the fans than any other player. Oh, and he also became the first player to leading a league in batting average (.350) and stolen bases (56) since Jackie Robinson with the Dodgers in 1949. "He became the face of the Mariners franchise in a very short period of time," said Lou Piniella, the Mariners manager at the time. The team won the AL West with 116 victories, equaling the single-season record for wins established by the Chicago Cubs in 1906. "It was a special season for the team and Ichiro," former Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said. "It was hard for him, coming from Japan to the big leagues because it was such a major event in Japan. He handled it. He made the adjustments to Major League Baseball quickly." Ichiro was no small part of that, the Mariners not only building off a strong Asian population base in the Pacific Northwest, but also a huge interest from Japan, where a deal was worked out for Mariners games to be televised in that country. There were two dozen newspaper reporters and television crews from Japan to cover Ichiro's every move. That helped build an international image for the Mariners, but contrary to popular perception it did not provide a major cash flow for the Mariners. Yes, they did sell signage to Japanese firms, particularly behind home plate, which showed up on telecasts back to Japan, but there was no cash windfall for the Japanese television rights. Under MLB rules any telecasts outside of the United States belong to MLB, and so the Mariners received the same share for the Japanese television deal as each of the other Major League teams. They did, however, have the services of one of the game's premier players, who compiled a record 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons his first 10 years with the Mariners, including 262 hits in 2004, breaking the 84-year-old, single-season, major league hit record held by George Sisler. "The big upside was he played well," Adamack said. "He had a marquee value. We quickly became known internationally. Financially? His sponsorship presence was $1 million or $1.5 million. The (international) television rights were not ours. There were ticket sales through travel companies in Japan, and we sold a lot of merchandise and the Japanese tourists put more value on items they purchased directly from our stores at Safeco. We had people buying in bulk to take the merchandise back home." And there was the Yamauchi factor. It's not that Suzuki was an unknown to the Mariners' baseball people. In 1997 Mariners officials had gone to Japan to look at high school players at the urging of Yamauchi, and while they were they met with Ichiro, who played with Orix, where Jim Colborn, who oversaw Mariners scouting in the Pacific Rim, was the pitching coach. "There was a picture of Junior on the wall and he told us, through an interpreter, that he wanted to play in the same outfield as Ken Griffey Jr., " Armstrong said. "Two years later he was in our spring training on an exchange program." And the next year he was in the camp as a member of the team, the Mariners having bid $13.2 million for the positing rights—$4 million more than the Dodgers, who were the second-highest—and then signed him to a three-year, $14 million contract. "Mr. Yamauchi told us whatever we have to spend, we needed to spend what it took to get him," Armstrong said. Then came the negotiations with Ichiro, which took a strange turn when Yamauchi made it clear that the Mariners could not give Ichiro more than the four-year, $30.2 million contract the Mariners gave reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki a year earlier. Armstrong said agent Tony Attanasio balked, but "Ichiro told our scout, Ted Heid (who had replaced Colborn) that he would take it. He really wanted to come, and it was a Japanese thing, where the senior member had a special ranking." The turn of events led to a special time in Seattle.