Lou Piniella's skepticism changed with a flick of Ichiro's wrists when the Japanese star arrived for spring training with the Mariners.
Ichiro Suzuki, his eminence not yet announced by first name only, arrived at Peoria in the spring of 2001 as an enigma.
The Mariners had gotten a brief glimpse of the Japanese star in spring training two years earlier, part of an exchange program with the Orix Blue Wave. But his stay was abbreviated because of food poisoning, and no one knew quite what to expect.
Now he was a full-fledged member of the Mariners, having signed a three-year, $14-million deal (on top of a $13.125 million posting fee the Mariners paid Orix to win negotiating rights with the seven-time Japanese batting champion).
Manager Lou Piniella was nervous, players were skeptical, and Ichiro (as he would soon be known exclusively) was consumed with the pressure of being the first Japanese position player in the major leagues — his every move scrutinized by an army of reporters, and his countrymen at home.
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“We were all waiting to see who this guy was, and if he could help us,” said Mark McLemore.
We all know how this story ended, of course. Ichiro was a sensation, winning the batting title (.350), the stolen-base crown (56), starting the All-Star Game, earning a Gold Glove, and beating out teammate Bret Boone for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award.
As catcher Dan Wilson put it succinctly, “He took the league by storm.”
But first Ichiro had to win over Piniella in spring training. One after another, players and coaches from that 2001 team recall the manager’s increasing agitation during Cactus League play as Ichiro kept hitting weakly to the left side.
“Lou wasn’t sold on him,” said catcher Tom Lampkin.
And Piniella wasn’t the only one.
“I think everyone was skeptical,” recalled Jeff Nelson. “He didn’t really do anything in spring training, and people were thinking, ‘This guy might be overmatched.’ “
“Everyone was, like, we just signed a Punch and Judy guy,” added Aaron Sele. “He used to tell Lou, ‘I’ve got a plan. I’ve got a plan.’ “
But still, “Lou was getting a little nervous,” noted John Olerud.
Finally, matters came to a head before a game in Peoria which has become an essential part of Ichiro lore. As bench coach John McLaren tells the story — everyone has a slightly different version, including Piniella — Piniella said to Ichiro that day, “Ichiro, do you ever turn on the ball?”
As McLaren recalls, Ichiro replied, “Yeah, sometimes.”
Said McLaren: “The first time up in the bottom of the first, he hit one up on the hill. He came back to the dugout, took his helmet off, and said, ‘Is that turning on the ball, Skip?’ It was priceless.”
Piniella recalls using Ichiro’s interpreter that day to challenge his new right fielder to hit the ball to the right side.
“He was hitting to left field a lot, and they were really shading him over, playing him almost like a right-handed pull hitter,” Piniella said. “I told him he needed to pull the ball, and he said, ‘No problem.’ The next at-bat, he hit one out of the park to right and said, ‘Are you happy now?’
“I told Ichiro, ‘You can do whatever you want the rest of the year.’ “
Ichiro himself says he was driven that year to prove he belonged in his new league. Asked when he first began to feel comfortable in 2001, Ichiro replied, through interpreter Antony Suzuki:
“To be honest with you, I did not feel comfortable. Our team won, and that solved everything. But being a rookie, I felt very desperate. I needed to perform as the first Japanese position player. I represented a lot of people, and I needed to perform so they would have a chance.”
Ichiro’s exalted performance in 2001 first began to reveal itself when he pulled the ball in Peoria.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org