Lou Pinella was skeptical when Ichiro arrived from Japan in 2001 for his first spring training session with the Seattle Mariners.
Ichiro was also suspicious of his new manager.
During a 15-minute speech Saturday night — all delivered in English to a packed house at T-Mobile Park — Ichiro revealed his sense of humor after missing his first major league regular-season game.
The Mariners won the game, the first of 116 wins in that lucrative 2001 season, and Pinella later feuded with Ichiro in the clubhouse.
“Lu kissed my cheek right here,” Ichiro said. “The manager gave me a wet kiss every two years. That doesn’t happen in Japan. I was shocked. To be honest I was scared. I thought to myself, ‘If it’s common in America, maybe I wouldn’t do it here. I’ll make it.'”
Oh he fixed it.
And 21 years later, Ichiro returned to Seattle for a spirited induction ceremony as the newest inductee of the Mariners’ Hall of Fame. He is the 10th member of the exclusive club and the first member since Jamie Moyer in 2015.
“Even though I’ve retired as an active player, baseball and Seattle have never left my heart,” Ichiro said. “Baseball will forever be my soulmate. And my mission is to help both players and fans appreciate this special sport.”
At the start of the hour-long ceremony, Julio Rodriguez, the Mariners’ newest star outfield player, emerged from the bunker of the house and presented Ichiro with a bouquet of flowers. (Two hours later, Rodriguez delivered on the field with a lone home run in the third inning by Cleveland’s Zach Plesack to become the first Seattle player since Ichiro in 2001 to total 200 bases in his 110 career games. Talk about timing. )
The Mariners’ tallest midfielder, Ken Griffey Jr., concluded the ceremony by helping Ichiro don the Mariners’ blue Hall of Fame jacket while the crowd stood and chanted his name (“I-a-roo!”).
In 2009 and 2010, teammates Ichiro and Griffy sat side by side on the grass, and from 2010 their playful commercial was featured on the T-Mobile Park Videoboard. This was the commercial where Griffy, once a prankster, applies glue to Ichiro’s folding chair.
When the ad ended, Ichiro turned right to face Griffi.
“I didn’t do it this time,” Griffey told him with a smile.
Ichiro thanks Griffi during his speech.
“He was my role model even before I came to America,” Ichiro told the crowd. “But in 2009 he returned to Seattle and I finally found his partner. Yes, he is a clown. But for me he is also a real professional. He has helped me more than I can express. Being his teammate is really one of the highlights of my career.”
After 28 seasons in pro ball — nine in Japan and 19 in the majors — Ichiro retired in 2019 as the all-time all-time leading player with 4,367 hits.
And he still looks like he’s got a few more singles to go.
“I want our players to know that I’m with you to be the best,” he said. “I was 27 when I came to Seattle. I couldn’t imagine my career the last 19 seasons in America and I will still be in Seattle today.
“With that in mind, I want to say to current players: your future has possibilities that you can’t even imagine. So embrace them by doing your best without setting yourself any limits. If Japan is a slender, low. A A man of stature can compete in that uniform and then stand before you tonight to accept that honor, so there’s no reason you can’t (also).
Longtime Mariners broadcaster Rick Riess attended the ceremony, and team president John Stanton introduced Ichiro, and both agreed: Saturday’s introduction was just a warm-up for what’s to come.
Ichiro may be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2025, and there’s no doubt he’ll be a hit again during that induction ceremony.