Ichiro joins exclusive company in Mariners Hall of Fame

August 28th, 2022

SEATTLE -- It began like an outdoor concert for an iconic rock star, and in many ways, carries that reputation in these parts. There was a sellout crowd on a summer Saturday night, and the introduction had all the parallels when the center of attention was finally introduced.

“What’s up, Seattle?!” Ichiro shouted, after which he allowed the eager audience to roar back and take in the moment.

Seattle’s franchise icon was beginning a 16-minute speech -- which he gave in English -- in conjunction with being enshrined in the Mariners Hall of Fame.

“Even though I retired as an active player, baseball and Seattle have never left my heart,” Ichiro said. “Baseball will forever be my soul, and my mission is to keep helping both players and fans appreciate this special game.”

Ichiro is the first member added since 2015, and he joined an exclusive group that includes nine other members (in order of induction): Alvin Davis, Dave Niehaus, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, Dan Wilson, Ken Griffey Jr., Lou Piniella and Jamie Moyer, with all in attendance except Johnson and Piniella. One by one, Ichiro shared a message with each, blending in his trademark quick-wit humor with heartfelt respect. He also addressed Piniella.

“Lou kissed me right here on the cheek,” Ichiro said. “The manager gave me a big wet kiss. That doesn't happen in Japan. I was shocked. Honestly, I was scared. I thought to myself if this is customary in America, I might not make it here. Remember, we won 116 games that year. I wasn't ready for 116 kisses from the manager.”

He also thanked Mariners ownership for the opportunity to contribute as a special advisor in his post-playing days.

“Most days, I still wear the Mariners uniform, and I do so proudly,” Ichiro said. “I want our players to know that I am with you in your fight to be the best. I was 27 years old when I came to Seattle. I could never imagine my career in America would last 19 seasons and that I would still be in Seattle today.”

He then addressed the current team, which eagerly watched the ceremony from the home dugout rail.

"Your future has possibilities that you cannot imagine,” Ichiro said. “So embrace it by giving your best without imposing limits on yourself. If a skinny guy from Japan can compete in this uniform, and then stand before you tonight to accept this honor, then there is no reason you cannot do it either.”

And, of course, he thanked the fans.

“You cheered loudly for me as a new player that first game 21 years ago -- and you never stopped,” Ichiro said, becoming emotional. “When I returned in 2018, it was as if I never left. The passion with which you welcomed me back touched my heart. It is one of the best memories of my career, and I will never forget that feeling. It is my greatest honor to have played for you as a Seattle Mariner.”

Ichiro played parts of 14 seasons for the Mariners before his dramatic retirement at age 45 in Tokyo three years ago. He also played for the Yankees and Marlins, albeit less prominently, and nine years in Japan before his MLB debut in 2001.

Yet for all his stops over his 28-year playing career, there was always an affinity for the Mariners.

“There was never a point in my career that I could have said that this was going to happen, so I’m definitely grateful,” Ichiro said Friday, through interpreter Allen Turner, who was his translator when he arrived in 2001.

The biggest void Ichiro envisioned that he’d face upon retiring was the passion he had for playing, and how hard it’d be to hang up his glove. He elaborated on that with perspective after stepping away following the Japan Series that began the 2019 regular season.

“I get that question a lot,” Ichiro said. “But the way my career ended in Japan at the Tokyo Dome, and how the fans embrace me there, that is what makes this an easier exit. Of course, when I still run and do things, I feel like I can still play. Physically, I feel like I can play. But emotionally because I was able to finish the way I was able to finish, that kind of beats out all the other things; it just makes it so that I'm at peace.”

Shortly after retiring, Ichiro began as a special advisor to the Mariners, essentially serving as an assistant coach during Spring Training and most home games during the regular season. When he’s working, he’s almost always in full uniform and going at maximum physical effort, whether running the bases, shagging fly balls or everything in between. But he’s never wanted to be an imposing figure.

“I never go up to a player and tell him or give him advice or anything like that,” Ichiro said. “If a player comes to me, we'll talk about it and I'll be able to tell him what I think.”

Reflecting on his overall legacy, which will likely include an enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame when he’s first eligible in 2025, Ichiro spoke with closure.

“I feel like ending is so important,” Ichiro said. “It’s tough to end things, and the way it ended, there's just no other way to do that. And so that's why I feel good about not playing.”