Ringolsby: Mariners Bring Ichiro Home

Image credit: Ichiro (Getty Images)

It was only fitting that Ichiro Suzuki returned to the Mariners for his final big league at-bats. Those five at-bats came during the Japan opening series between the Mariners and Athletics in Tokyo in March. It was, after all, the Mariners who signed Ichiro and started him on his way to becoming the first Japanese position player in major league history. He will unquestionably become the first Japanese player enshrined in the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2025. But the Mariners didn’t know that when they signed him in November 2000. At the time, Seattle was 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 what were the five best attendance totals in franchise history.

However, free agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez had signed with the Rangers. That came on the heels of the Ken Griffey Jr. trade to the Reds the previous offseason. The Mariners had dealt pending free agent Randy Johnson to the Astros in July 1998.

Along came Ichiro Suzuki, the first position player to make the move from the Japanese major leagues to Major League Baseball, who became a fixture in the Mariners’ lineup for 12 seasons. The signing was driven 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 him.

“There was a mystery about him,” Mariners senior vice president of communications Randy Adamack said. “He had been 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 in 2001, when he joined Fred Lynn of the 1975 Red Sox as the only players to win the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards in the same season. He also became the first player to win those awards, claim a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger as well as start in an All-Star Game in his inaugural campaign.

That first All-Star Game, it should be noted, was one in which Ichiro received more votes from the fans than any other player. Oh, and during that season, he also became the first player to lead a league in batting average (.350) and stolen bases (56) since Jackie Robinson with the Dodgers in 1949.

The 2001 Mariners won the American League West with 116 victories, equaling the record established by the 1906 Cubs.

“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 quickly.”

Ichiro was no small part of that, with Seattle not only building off a strong Asian population base in the Pacific Northwest, but also a huge interest from Japan—where a deal was struck for Mariners games to be televised in that country. There were at least 20 newspaper reporters and television crews from Japan documenting Ichiro’s every move.

That helped build an international image for Seattle. But contrary to popular perception, it did not provide a major cash influx for the Mariners. Yes, it 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.

That’s because any telecasts outside of the U.S. belong to MLB. So the Mariners received the same share for the Japanese television deal as each of the other 29 teams.

The Mariners 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. That included 262 hits in 2004, which broke George Sisler’s 84-year-old record of 257.

“The big upside was he played well,” Adamack said. “He had a marquee value. We quickly became known internationally. Financially? His sponsorship presence was (worth) $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 Ichiro was an unknown to the Mariners’ front office. Club officials traveled to Japan in 1997 to look at high school players at the urging of Yamauchi. While they were there, they met with Ichiro, who played with Orix. Jim Colborn, director of Pacific Rim scouting for the Mariners, was the pitching coach.

“There was a picture of (Griffey) on the wall, and he told us through a translator 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 (in 1999).”

Two years later, Ichiro was in camp as a member of the team—with the Mariners having bid $13.2 million for his posting rights, $4 million more than the Dodgers—and then signed him to a three-year, $14 million deal.

“Mr. Yamauchi told us whatever we have to spend, we needed to spend,” Armstrong said.

Then came the negotiations with Ichiro, which took a strange turn when Yamauchi said the Mariners would not give Ichiro more than the four years and $30.2 million they 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 (to the U.S.), and it was a Japanese thing—where the senior member had a special ranking.”

That turn of events led to a special time in Seattle.

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