Lou Piniella, who in 2001 was Ichiro Suzuki’s first big league manager, spoke Tuesday about the Japanese star’s start with the Seattle Mariners and the impact of his career.
“We won 116 games (in 2001) and Ichiro was a big part of it,” Piniella, now a special consultant with the Cincinnati Reds told a conference call on Tuesday.
“He had a tremendous impact on our team that year. I’m so proud of him. To think in that first year that this young man would be playing at the age of 42 and going for 3,000 hits, I didn’t think it was possible then. Two thousand hits would have been an outstanding achievement. I am so happy for him. He’s a wonderful man. He’s a great ambassador for the game.”
Ichiro, who is now 10 hits shy of 3,000, moved to the majors at the age of 27 after seven consecutive batting titles in Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League. But in NPB, the art of pitching is less about fastball velocity and more about location and the command of secondary pitches. So after watching Ichiro briefly in the spring of 2000, when he spent a short time in the Mariners camp, Piniella’s big concern in 2001 was whether or not his new outfielder could handle big league fastballs.
“Early in the spring he wasn’t pulling the ball at all,” Piniella said. “He was hitting everything to left field. I called the interpreter over and said, ‘Ask Ichiro if he can pull the ball. I want to see some bat speed.’
“He went back to the dugout and he huddled with Ichiro, and he (Ichiro) laughed a little bit. About two innings later, Ichiro leads off the inning with a home run into the right-center field bullpen in Arizona. He rounds the bases, steps on home plate and says, ‘Happy now?’
“So I said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ I recognized that this was a special talent.”
Ichiro won the American League’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in 2001, and earned the first of his two AL batting titles. In 2004, his 262 hits established Major League Baseball’s single-season hit record.
But Piniella said it wasn’t just Ichiro’s unique stretching or his prowess in putting the ball in play that made him special.
“It’s not easy to make the adjustment from a cultural and social aspect,” Piniella said. “He had the interpreter, which helped, and at the same time he spoke Spanish — they have a lot of Dominican and Latin kids playing over there (in Japan) — and I can speak Spanish fluently, so we communicated in Spanish, not English or Japanese and we would laugh about it.
“He was a fun guy. Just easy to manage — he basically coached himself. His exercise routine was almost legendary and he was a great example for the rest of our players.
“He made the adjustment to American baseball very, very quickly, became one of the leaders in our clubhouse and was really accepted by the players.”
Now in his second National League season as a fourth outfielder with the Miami Marlins, Ichiro is coming off the worst year of his career, when he batted .229 in 398 at-bats. This year, however, at the age of 42, Ichiro’s ambition of playing until he’s 50 seems almost plausible with a .340 average while he’s drawing walks three times as often as he had in his career through 2015.
“Very few players play past the age of 35 or 36,” said Piniella, who played until he was 40. “That’s the cutoff point. When you are older, it becomes extremely difficult. But by the time I was 36 and 37, I was no longer an everyday player.
“It’s difficult. The pitchers are getting younger and stronger and throwing harder and the body is getting a little older. It (Ichiro’s poor offense last year) didn’t surprise me. Every player slows down. You lose bat speed. Your mind is as sharp as ever, but your body slows down.”
“He’s hung around he’s had a marvelous career. He’s well liked. He’s a tremendous ambassador for the game. It’s a really good story.”