Ichiro is one of the most recognizable names in Seattle sports history. The star outfielder spent more than 11 seasons with the Seattle Mariners, setting the Major League Baseball single-season hits record, playing in ten All-Star Games, winning the American League Most Valuable Player and becoming loved all around the world. Before Ichiro could accomplish any of that though, he first needed to earn the respect of Mariners manager Lou Piniella.
Welcome to the third and final installment of Story Time with Lou Piniella. In the first installment, Piniella shared his hilarious meeting with New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. In the second installment, “Sweet Lou” talked about one of his most memorable ejections, and now Piniella’s shares a funny story about his first spring training with Ichiro:
Ichiro came to the Seattle Mariners in 2001 after a nine-year career with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan. He was the first Japanese position player in the big leagues, and he came to America as one of the most hyped rookies ever. I actually saw Ichiro during his first Spring Training with the M’s. I don’t remember who the Mariners were playing that day, but Ichiro swatted a ball into the gap. I can still see Ichiro blazing around the bases with his long stride and incredible speed. I was instantly sold on Ichiro from that moment on. Lou Piniella was a little harder to impress.
Piniella says Ichiro wasn’t pulling the ball at all when Spring Training started. He was just hitting the ball to left field over and over again. Opponents were on to Ichiro by the fourth or fifth game of the spring. Piniella says the left fielder started playing down the line and the third baseman was so far over “he was almost shaking hands with the third base coach.”
To mix things up, Piniella called Ichiro’s interpreter over and asked if he could have Ichiro pull the ball. Piniella says he wanted to “check his bat speed a little bit.” So, the interpreter walked over to Ichiro, they huddled for a while and both nodded to Piniella after their conversation.
Two innings later, Ichiro led off for the Mariners. On the very first pitch of his at-bat, Ichiro smacked the ball into the right field bullpen for a home run. Piniella says, “He rounds the bases, comes over to me, shakes my hand and says, ‘Are you happy now?’”
Ichiro went on to win the American League Rookie of the Year, MVP and batting title that season. He hit .350 with eight home runs and 69 runs batted in, while also stealing a league-leading 56 bases and winning a Gold Glove for his play in right field that year. Ichiro was an instant superstar, exceeding all of his lofty expectations. Aside from his individual accolades, Ichiro was also one of the main reasons the Mariners tied the Major League record with 116 wins in 2001.
Piniella only spent the 2001 and 2002 seasons with Ichiro in Seattle, but that was more than enough time to make an impact on “Sweet Lou”. Piniella has since told MLB.com that Ichiro should be in the Hall of Fame:
“He is one of the greatest leadoff hitters in the history of the major leagues,” Piniella said. ”He’s a great hitter, a great base runner, a great fielder with a great arm, a game breaker. All of those qualities add up to me as a Hall of Fame player.”
If Ichiro makes it to the Hall of Fame (he has to retire first), Piniella will more than likely meet him there. “Sweet Lou” has 1,835 career wins as a manager, ranking 14th in Major League Baseball history. 18 managers with fewer wins than Piniella have been enshrined in the hall, so it’s only a matter of time before Piniella gets his call to Cooperstown. There’s no doubt he deserves it.
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