04/03/07 12:00 PM ET
Ichiro paved way for Matsuzaka
Outfielder endured spotlight during 2001 rookie season
By Jim Street / MLB.com
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.