Famous Lou Piniella was skeptical when Ichiro arrived from Japan for his first spring training with the Seattle Mariners in 2001.
Ichiro was also skeptical of his new manager.
During a 15-minute speech Saturday night — all in English to a sold-out crowd at T-Mobile Park — Ichiro revealed his sense of humor as he reminisced about his first major league regular-season game.
The Mariners won the game, the first of 116 wins in that charming 2001 season, and then Piniella cornered Ichiro in the clubhouse.
“Lou kissed me here on the cheek,” Ichiro said. “The director gave me a biiiiig wet kiss. This does not happen in Japan. I was shocked. Honestly, I was scared. I thought, ‘If it’s a custom in America, maybe I won’t do it here.’
Oh, he did well.
And 21 years later, Ichiro returned to Seattle for a spirited induction ceremony as the newest member of the Mariners’ Hall of Fame. He is the 10e member of the exclusive club, and the first to be inducted since Jamie Moyer in 2015.
“Even though I retired as an active player, baseball and Seattle never left my heart,” Ichiro said. “Baseball will forever be my soul. And my mission is to continue to help players and fans enjoy this special game.
As the hour-long ceremony began, Julio Rodriguez, the Mariners’ newest center fielder, emerged from the home dugout and presented Ichiro with a bouquet of flowers. (Two hours later, Rodriguez delivered on the field with a solo home run in the third inning against Cleveland’s Zach Plesac, becoming the first Seattle player to reach 200 total goals in his first 110 career games since Ichiro in 2001. Talk about the timing.)
Ken Griffey Jr., the Mariners greatest center back, closed the ceremony by helping Ichiro put on the Mariners Hall of Fame blue jacket, as the crowd rose and chanted his name.I-ee-roo!”).
Ichiro and Griffey, teammates in 2009 and 2010, sat next to each other on the indoor grass and watched their playful 2010 ad played on the T-Mobile Park video board. It was the ad where Griffey, still the prankster, puts glue on Ichiro’s folding chair.
At the end of the commercial, Ichiro turned to his right to look at Griffey.
“I didn’t this time,” Griffey told him, smiling.
Ichiro thanked Griffey during his speech.
“He was my idol even before I came to America,” Ichiro told the crowd. “But in 2009 he went back to Seattle and I finally got to be his teammate. Yeah, he’s a prankster. But to me, he’s also a real professional. He’s helped me in so many more ways. I can’t express it. Being his teammate is really one of the highlights of my career.
After 28 professional ball seasons — nine in Japan and 19 at the majors — Ichiro retired in 2019 as the game’s all-time leader in hits, with 4,367.
And he always looks like he has a few more singles in him.
“I want our players to know that I’m with you in your fight to be the best,” he said. “I was 27 when I arrived in Seattle. I could never have imagined my career in America for the past 19 seasons and that I will still be in Seattle today.
“With this in mind, I would like to say to current players: your future has possibilities that you can’t imagine either. So embrace it by giving your best without putting limits on yourself. If a skinny guy and too little one from Japan can compete in that uniform and then stand before you tonight to accept that honor, so there’s no reason you can’t (too).
Longtime Mariners broadcaster Rick Rizzs hosted the ceremony and team president John Stanton introduced Ichiro, and both shared the same sentiment: Saturday’s induction was just a warm-up for what was to come.
Ichiro is eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2025, and there’s no doubt he’ll be a hit again at this induction ceremony.