Ichiro paved way for Matsuzaka
Outfielder endured spotlight during 2001 rookie season
SEATTLE -- When the Mariners introduced a new right fielder to Safeco Field six years ago, one-third of the massive press box was filled with journalists from Japan. The scribes were excited about chronicling every move Ichiro Suzuki made during the previously unheard-of graduation of a position player from Japanese baseball to the Major Leagues.Every move. Among trailblazers, Ichiro was the man, and nothing he did went unnoticed or uncovered. An icon in his native country, where he won seven consecutive Pacific League batting championships with the Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro was more mystery than anything to the American writers who were more interested in exactly how the Mariners were going to replace shortstop Alex Rodriguez than how the latest import from Japan would perform. The Mariners were coming off a playoff season in 2000 and already were the talk of the town heading into Opening Night against the Athletics. Most of Mariner Nation never even heard of the Orix Blue Wave until Nov. 18, 2000 -- the day Ichiro signed with Seattle -- and the organization already had introduced Japanese baseball products with pitchers Mac Suzuki (no relation) and Kaz Sasaki. But this would be different. Almost four months after he signed a three-year contract, Ichiro walked through the double doors at the Mariners' Spring Training complex and into view of what must have been at least 150 cameras and notebook-toting journalists, who proceeded to track his progress -- pitch-by-pitch. And that was first time he took batting practice. It was all Ichiro from the time the sun came up to the time the sun went down. "I'm used to the media," he said after one of his daily media sessions, "but it's still very hard." Every pitcher who faced Ichiro would be asked afterwards to give his impression of the left-handed hitter who sprayed balls left and right and occasionally hit one over the right-field fence. Cameras clicked. Writers looked up, saw a pitch, and made note of the type of pitch, where it was thrown and where the ball went after making contact with Ichiro's bat. One of the first impressions was how Ichiro would take the time every single day to discuss with the Japanese media his workout on that day.
The Mariners' first Spring Training game was televised live in Japan on NHK-TV and every newspaper in the country that sent a reporter to Mariners camp trumpeted the event. Before Ichiro swung a bat in a regular-season game, he had been interviewed by ESPN, The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, Time and Newsweek, among others.NHK, Japan's national public TV network, had followed Ichiro's progress all spring and televised all of the Mariners home games, along with between 30 and 40 road games that season. There were 55 press box media credentials issued to Japan-based publications for Opening Night and as many as 25 media members covered all Mariners home and away games that season. When Ichiro stepped into history on Opening Night, an estimated 12 million people in Japan were watching. That is the figure Yuji Kato, the field producer for NHK Television, said would be tuned in at the time in Japan. "This is big and I'm sure a lot of people will be taking early lunches," said Kato before the game. "There would be more people watching if it was in prime time, but that [11 a.m.] is a busy time." Besides the large Japanese media brigade that recorded everything Ichiro did that night -- from the time he arrived at the stadium to the time he departed -- there was a special guest sitting in Mariners' CEO Howard Lincoln's luxury suite. Ichiro's father, Nobuyuki, flew in from Japan to watch his son make history. Ichiro was 0-for-3 when he came to bat in the seventh inning, and with a record crowd of 45,911 egging him on, he singled up the middle off T.J. Mathews, igniting a game-tying two-run rally. An inning later, Ichiro bunted for a hit in the Mariners' 5-4 victory -- the first of 116 wins that season. Throughout Spring Training, the always kind and courteous Japanese media would approach American writers and ask their impressions of Ichiro. On several occasions, they asked if a certain writer believed that Ichiro would hit at least .300 in his rookie season. Who could have envisioned him batting .350 and becoming the second player in MLB history to capture the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Award in the same season -- joining Fred Lynn (Red Sox) in that exclusive club? As it was, eyebrows were raised whenever anyone suggested that Ichiro would bat less than .300 -- something he hadn't done since 1993. "I honestly have no idea what I'll hit," Ichiro told American reporters when asked the same question. "I don't have any track record and I don't understand where they come up with numbers like that. I don't know what they base it on. I'd love to know what the logic is. Or are they just pulling it out of thin air?" Six years and 1,354 hits later, the media attention from his homeland has diminished a little, although more than a dozen Japan-based media spent more than 30 minutes with Ichiro almost an hour after the Mariners' pre-Opening Day workout at Safeco Field was finished on Sunday. There is no doubt that his place in Japanese baseball lore is forever etched in stone as the first position player in that country's history to make it big in the big leagues. His debut was something to see in person and to reflect on later -- such as now, as the influx of Japanese players, pitchers and position players, continues to grow with the likes of Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.