Lou Piniella, famously, was skeptical when Ichiro arrived from Japan for his first spring training with the Seattle Mariners in 2001.
Ichiro was skeptical of his new manager, too.
During a 15-minute speech Saturday evening — conducted all in English before a sold-out crowd at T-Mobile Park — Ichiro revealed his sense of humor as he recalled his first regular-season game in the major leagues.
The Mariners won the game, the first of 116 victories during that charmed 2001 season, and afterward Piniella cornered Ichiro in the clubhouse.
“Lou kissed me right here on the cheek,” Ichiro said. “The manager gave me a biiiiig wet kiss. That doesn’t happen in Japan. I was shocked. Honestly, I was scared. I thought to myself, ‘If this is a custom in America, I might not make it here.’”
Oh, he made it just fine.
And 21 years later, Ichiro made it back to Seattle for a rousing induction ceremony as the newest member of the Mariners’ Hall of Fame. He’s the 10th member of the exclusive club, and the first to be induced since Jamie Moyer in 2015.
“Even though I retired as an active player, baseball and Seattle have never left my heart,” Ichiro said. “Baseball will forever be my soul. And my mission is to keep helping both players and fans appreciate this special game.”
Early on in the hourlong ceremony, the Mariners’ newest star center fielder, Julio Rodriguez, emerged from the home dugout and delivered Ichiro a bouquet of flowers. (Two hours later, Rodriguez delivered on the field with a solo home run in the third inning off Cleveland’s Zach Plesac, becoming the first Seattle player to reach 200 total bases in his first 110 career games since Ichiro in 2001. Talk about timing.)
Ken Griffey Jr., the Mariners’ greatest center fielder, closed out the ceremony by helping Ichiro slip on the Mariners’ blue Hall of Fame jacket, as the crowd stood and chanted his name (“Ich-ee-roo!”).
Ichiro and Griffey, teammates in 2009 and 2010, sat next to each other on the infield grass and watched as their playful commercial from 2010 was shown on the T-Mobile Park videoboard. It was the commercial where Griffey, ever the prankster, puts glue on Ichiro’s folding chair.
As the commercial ended, Ichiro turned to his right to look at Griffey.
“I didn’t do it 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 returned to Seattle and I finally got to be his teammate. Yes, he’s a jokester. But for me, he’s also a true professional. He helped me in more ways than I can express. Being his teammate is truly one of my career highlights.”
After 28 seasons of professional ball — nine in Japan and 19 in the majors — Ichiro retired in 2019 as the game’s all-time leader in hits, with 4,367.
And he still looks like he might have a few more singles in him.
“I want our players to know I am with you in your fight to be the best,” he said. “I was 27 years old when I came to Seattle. I could never imagine my career in America last 19 seasons and that I will still be in Seattle today.
“With that in mind, I would like to say to the current players: Your future has possibilities that you cannot imagine as well. So embrace it by giving your best without imposing limits on yourself. If a skinny, undersized guy from Japan can compete in this uniform, and then stand before you tonight to accept this honor, then there’s no reason you cannot do it (too).”
Longtime Mariners broadcaster Rick Rizzs emceed the ceremony, and team chairman John Stanton introduced Ichiro, and both hit on the same sentiment: Saturday’s induction was just a warmup for what’s to come next.
Ichiro is eligible for Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2025, and there’s no doubt he’ll be a hit, again, during that induction ceremony.