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The Colossal Legacy of Ichiro’s Rookie Season, 20 Years Later

In 2001, Ichiro Suzuki made his MLB debut for the Seattle Mariners. What happened next was not only the greatest rookie season in baseball history—it was a glimpse at both the past and future of the sport.

Michael Weinstein

Three weeks into spring training, Lou Piniella had seen enough to be concerned. Game after game, the Mariners skipper had watched Ichiro Suzuki slap and bloop and pepper fastballs everywhere between left field and the third-base dugout. As the longtime Mariners radio voice Rick Rizzs remembers it, the newly signed phenom kept “lining shots over Lou’s head in the folding chair.” Despite Ichiro often firing his hips and hitting scorchers to the right side in Japan, the outfielder had yet to drive anything there that spring, and looked outmatched against MLB pitching. As the team’s time in Peoria, Arizona, wound down, Piniella wanted proof that his potential leadoff hitter could pull the baseball.

So on March 20, 2001, following an early lunch with bench coach John McLaren, Piniella headed to batting practice at the Mariners’ complex and called over Ted Heid, Seattle’s Pacific Rim scout and Ichiro’s temporary interpreter. “I need Ichiro to take a little batting practice,” Piniella told him, before turning to his future star. “Ichiro, you ever turn on the ball?”

“Yeah, sometimes,” Ichiro replied.

Later that day, in a 7-4 loss to the Athletics, Ichiro took his manager’s hint. After smacking two doubles to left field, he stepped to the plate in the seventh inning, surveyed the diamond with his right arm perpendicular to the ground, and whipped his hands through a low fastball to lift a home run into the bullpen beyond the right-field wall. “He comes back to the dugout, getting ready to walk down the steps to take his helmet off, and he says, ‘Is that turn on ball, Lou?’” McLaren says. “He’s funny in that way.”

“We just wanted to see that in a game,” Piniella later told the media, a statement that Seattle Times reporter Bob Sherwin interpreted the next day: “Everyone can now take a deep breath.”

That Wednesday afternoon has become folkloric, because it’s the last time Ichiro’s ability was ever openly questioned. Over his first season in Seattle, the then-27-year-old erased any doubts about his transition from Nippon Professional Baseball to MLB. His defensive acumen and acrobatics—his speed, arm strength, and daring pursuit angles on fly balls—earned him a Gold Glove award in right field. And his unique approach to hitting—his on-deck stretches, circular bat warmup, and distinct scamper out of the box—defied all baseball norms.

The first Japanese-born position player to make the majors also filled the Mariners’ celebrity void left by Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Randy Johnson, all of whom had recently departed Seattle. And Ichiro catapulted a team that was projected to finish third in its division to 116 wins and an unlikely place in MLB history. By the end of the regular season, he led the league in batting average (.350), hits (242), and stolen bases (56), becoming just the second player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Nobody had seen a player quite like him. And nobody has seen one since.

“It was great for Seattle, but it was really great for baseball,” former MLB commissioner Bud Selig says of Ichiro’s debut. “This great star comes over here and not only has success, but really sets the pace in a lot of ways.”

Twenty years later, Ichiro’s rookie season remains an inflection point, the beginning of a legacy that’s opened the door for other Japanese position players to thrive in MLB. His breakthrough offered a glimpse of the sport’s past and future, all while distinguishing him as a singularly timeless talent.

Ichrio prepares to bat against the Blue Jays in May 2001
Photo by ZORAN BOZICEVIC/AFP via Getty Images

When Ichiro was in third grade, his father began training him to be a star. As author Robert Whiting documented in The Meaning of Ichiro, Nobuyuki Suzuki instituted a relentless regimen for his son. Every day from 3:30 to 7 p.m., Ichiro would hit soft toss and take fungo drills in a nearby park. After returning home for dinner and schoolwork, he’d work in the batting cage from 9:30 to 11. “[Nobuyuki] wrote in one of his books that [Ichiro] had six hours a year to play with his friends and the rest was practicing baseball,” Whiting says. “He really didn’t have time to fit into group dynamics.”

As part of these punishing workouts, Ichiro honed his distinctive swing. Though naturally right-handed, he learned to hit lefty by practicing with a coal shovel, a move that gained him valuable extra steps out of the batter’s box. By high school, he had also developed a contorted batting stance in which he picked up his front leg and moved it “like a long, slow pendulum back toward the catcher,” as T.R. Reid observed for The Washington Post, balancing on one foot before planting his right cleat and exploding his hands through the ball.

Whiting says this stance initially “got him in a lot of trouble” with minor league manager Shozo Doi, who opposed Ichiro’s leg kick and kept him on the farm team for the 1992 Orix BlueWave. Within a couple of years, however, the team’s leadership had come to embrace Ichiro’s unorthodox style. “The Japanese approach to hitting is such a cookie-cutter approach—they all hit the same,” Whiting says. “They don’t allow for individual differences. You’ve got to be really, really good to break that mold.”

As Orix’s pitching coach between 1990 and 1993, Jim Colborn remembers hearing Ichiro’s name echoing constantly throughout the organization. “He was a legend before I’d even seen him,” Colborn says. By the time Colborn returned to Japan in 1997 as the Mariners’ new scouting coordinator for the Pacific Rim, Ichiro had become a national icon. During the previous three years, he broke the country’s single-season hit record (he had 210 hits in 130 games), won the first of seven straight batting titles, and transcended the limits of the Pacific League. His name and likeness were everywhere. “After he broke the hits record, you would see him on a lot of billboards in Japan,” Whiting says. “Most ballplayers, they’d wear polo shirts and golf pants, but he’d have baggy jeans and a cap on backwards. … He had a more avant-garde sense of fashion.”

Even after Hideo Nomo broke international barriers and found success with the Dodgers in 1995, only a few MLB teams had scouts on the ground in Japan. Thus, over the next few years, Colborn found it easy to court Ichiro, bringing him jerseys of Griffey Jr., his favorite player. In the winter, when Ichiro shot Nissan commercials in the United States, Colborn would host him at his home in Ventura, California, where he helped the Japanese star stay in shape. “I’d meet with him somewhere, usually at UCLA, one time we went to Cal State Fullerton, another time to Pepperdine,” Colborn says. “I’d throw him batting practice, I’d hit him fly balls, he’d throw the ball—and if I couldn’t make it that day, I’d have one of the local scouts in the area do the batting practice for him.” During one of Ichiro’s trips to Seattle, Colborn remembers a boat show taking place inside the Kingdome. “He hit in the batting cage underneath and he ran around the concourse in the upper deck for his running,” Colborn recalls, laughing.

The Mariners’ front office, led at the time by general manager Woody Woodward, was skeptical of how Ichiro’s skill set would translate to the U.S. But Colborn knew that the outfielder was special. During one season, Colborn remembers Ichiro swinging just 11 times over a four-game series, and barreling the ball on every swing. “It was stuff like that that I could pass on to help convince them,” Colborn says of the Seattle execs.

It also helped that the Mariners and Orix had a working agreement in which Seattle shared commercial and marketing ideas in exchange for info about NPB players. “[Orix executives] would come to the Kingdome and watch games and go to the office during the day,” Colborn says, “but the real, ultimate goal was for us to have first choice of their players.”

Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki extends his hitting
Ichiro extends his hitting streak to 14 games against the Angels in April 2001
Photo credit should read DAN LEVINE/AFP via Getty Images

In 1999, two years before Ichiro hit free agency, Orix expanded its agreement, allowing players to travel to Peoria to join the Mariners for spring training. Sharing the field with his idols for the first time, Ichiro displayed his quick bat and strong arm, impressing Piniella and the rest of his temporary teammates. “I remember him being out in right field with Jay Buhner and they were taking infield,” Rizzs says. “He charged the ball and he threw a bullet to home plate and I did a double take. I went, ‘What was that? Did Buhner throw that ball?’”

A year later, Colborn’s extensive scouting reports and personal relationship with Ichiro convinced Pat Gillick, the Mariners’ new GM, to make a strong play for him after the 2000 season. With MLB’s newly established posting system (which negated much of Colborn’s and the Mariners’ groundwork), Gillick leaned on ownership—particularly principal owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, a Nintendo chairman who loved watching Ichiro play in Japan—to make a competitive offer. “We thought we had a leadoff hitter, we thought we had a guy that could play right field, so we just went after it,” Gillick says. Colborn predicted that a bid of $10 million would win Ichiro’s negotiating rights, but Yamauchi wanted a failsafe number and threw in a couple extra million of his own money. By November, the Mariners had won the rights with a $13 million offer, and they quickly signed Ichiro to a three-year contract.

Not long after signing, Ichiro and his wife, Yumiko, visited Seattle, where the Mariners set up a private workout inside Safeco Field. Like they’d done in California, Colborn threw Ichiro batting practice beneath the closed roof, giving the dozen or so coaches and executives in attendance a front-row seat to observe his talent. “He took 150 swings and never stepped out of the batter’s box, never said ‘I need to get a blow, I need to get my breath, I’m tired,’” Gillick says. “You knew the work ethic was there.” Ichiro also showed off his power by smacking balls into the seats before moving to right field and unleashing rocket throws to the infield.

“After I saw the batting practice and saw him move the ball around the field, I didn’t think he was going to have any trouble adjusting,” Gillick says. “I knew it was going to be special.”

2001 MLB All Star Game
Ichiro runs the bases during the 2001 All-Star Game

Earlier in his courtship, Colborn had taken Ichiro to Peoria to tour the Mariners’ facility and visit Griffey’s locker. Before catching a flight back to Seattle, they grabbed hot dogs and leaned against the Phoenix airport’s high-top tables to discuss their trip. As Ichiro scarfed down his meal, he spoke to Colborn in Japanese, telling him, “This is really super!” Colborn was confused. “Are you kidding me? An airport hot dog?” he asked Ichiro’s interpreter. Then Ichiro clarified. “He says, ‘I mean I can walk around without having people bug me,’” Colborn says. “‘I’m anonymous here.’”

Two weeks into his rookie season, that would no longer be the case. His first signature highlight came on April 11 in Oakland. The Mariners and Athletics were locked in a scoreless affair until the eighth inning, when Ichiro led off with a pinch-hit single to left field, sparking a three-run rally. In the bottom of the inning, he replaced Anthony Sanders in right field and proceeded to show what set him apart.

With one out and Oakland’s Terrence Long at first base, catcher Ramón Hernández grounded a single to right field. Ichiro charged the ball, fielded it, and transferred it to his throwing hand as Long rounded second and ran toward third. Then Ichiro unleashed what would be dubbed “The Throw,” a laser beam that met David Bell’s glove knee-high and allowed the third baseman to gently apply a tag for the out. “They show that replay of it all the time because it was such a great tag,” Bell says jokingly. “I remember it being almost in slow motion. It just kept carrying, and you’re waiting for it to bounce, and it just never did.”

“That’s one of the greatest throws I’ve ever seen in my life,” Rizzs says. “That ball could have gone through David Bell another 10 to 15 feet. It was so true and so strong.” Next door in the press box, Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus described the throw as being like “something out of Star Wars,” a call that was soon attached to the clip on every sports report that night. “Dave’s call elevated it to superhuman stature,” Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone says. “That is when fans started to pay attention to Ichiro.”

Pretty soon, everyone was paying attention to Ichiro. After making adjustments in spring training, he revised his stance, keeping both feet on the ground to better catch up to fastballs. As a result, he substituted power for placement, lining, blooping, and grounding the ball—his body already a step out of the box—before beating out what appeared to be routine plays. “When I started facing him, one of the differences was the way he made our infielders rush,” former A’s pitcher Mark Mulder says. “You know how many times I saw Miguel Tejada field a ball and throw it? Well, he fielded it differently when Ichiro hit it. He forced mistakes.”

Bret Boone, the Mariners second baseman from 2001 to 2005, says it was “50-50” whether Ichiro beat out a run-of-the-mill grounder in the infield. “I used to look at him and tease him and say, ‘I’m jealous, because you’re kind of almost slump proof.’ ... He didn’t have to put a good swing on the ball to get a base hit. It was awesome.”

A few years before shifting became more common—and later, embedded into the fabric of the league—Ichiro forced managers to get creative and devise new defensive tactics to keep him from reaching base. But because he wasn’t a large, lumbering power hitter like Barry Bonds, and because he was capable of slapping hits in every direction, Ichiro made it nearly impossible to predict where was going to put the ball in play. “Shift him all you want,” Boone says. “He’s going to beat you.”

McLaren laughs when thinking about how opponents shifted to account for Ichiro’s spray chart. “I mean, they had the left fielder on the left-field line, they had the third baseman almost shaking hands with him, they had the infield halfway in, had the second baseman pulled sometimes—you saw every defense that you could see,” he says. “[Ichiro] held that bat up like a magic wand, like, ‘What do we got here?’” Even years later, during pitcher Ervin Santana’s debut season with the Angels, Ichiro always found an opening. “Every time I faced him, our team would shift and they’d leave the gap between left and center, and that was easy money for him,” says Santana, who now plays for the Royals and allowed the third most hits to Ichiro of any pitcher. “He’d just put the ball over there and it was an easy triple.”

By mastering a balanced, small-ball approach in a homer-happy epoch, Ichiro ushered in new defensive strategies, even as he simultaneously foiled them. He excelled at the little things, blending new school and old school, and carved out a niche that forced the rest of MLB to catch up. “Anybody who tried to copy Ichiro would have failed,” Whiting says. “He was just this unique individual, the result of a very unusual set of circumstances.”

2001 All-Star Game X
Signing autographs at the 2001 All-Star Game

Over the first half of his rookie season, Ichiro changed more than just defensive alignments around the league. He broke records, rebranded the Mariners into must-see TV, and proved that international players could not only succeed in MLB, but also become the face of the entire sport.

In April and May, he was named American League Rookie of the Month, thanks to a 15-game hit streak that ended on April 21 and a 23-game hit streak that started a day later. His 133 hits at the break marked a club record, and his league-leading 3.4 million votes made him an All-Star starter as a rookie. “When I threw a good split down and away, or when I threw a good sinker in, or when I threw a curveball down over the plate, he found a way to hit that ball harder than anyone else that I would face,” says Mulder, who gave up 17 hits to Ichiro in 38 career encounters. “That was the difference. I’d never faced a guy who was a better bad ball hitter.”

The torrid start only made Ichiro’s spotlight brighter, especially in Japan. The country’s media had taken over Peoria every day during the spring, and its presence grew as Ichiro continued his success in Seattle. “If I started a game against him, the day before they want to talk to you, after the game they want to talk to you, the next day they want to talk to you,” Mulder says. “That was pretty crazy.”

Throughout the summer, the Mariners also took advantage of their geographic location, catering to Japanese fans with weekend ticket packages and accommodations. For many, Ichiro wasn’t just a baseball player; he was a transcendent figure who demanded to be seen in person. “The tourist industry experienced this huge boom because people would fly there and stay in a hotel and take in two or three Mariners games and then come back. It was the thing to do,” Whiting says. “There was an arrogance there, like going to Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower.”

As Ichiro went, so did the Mariners. Seattle won 40 games over the first two months of that season, leaning on free-agent additions like Boone and key veterans like Edgar Martinez. By the All-Star break, it held a 19-game lead over the second-place A’s. Bell says the roster was full of “professional, consistent players,” but adds, “I wouldn’t say there were guys that were superstar players or elite, unbelievable athletes.” Ichiro was the exception. By instigating at the top of the lineup, wreaking havoc on the basepaths, and turning each game into an electric environment, he added “an element to our team that really sparked us in many different ways,” Bell says.

That included his preparation and personality, which often caught Seattle teammates off guard. “He’d come in the clubhouse [and] he did the same thing right in a row,” McLaren says. “Everything was like clockwork—he’d get his massage, hit off the tee, light weights, stretch, snack. Everything was just precise.” On road trips, Ichiro distinguished himself by carrying his bat in a violin-case humidor and stowing it in the overhead compartment instead of the plane’s belly; on the field, he always made sure his glove was unharmed. “He told me one time [that] a good carpenter has to take care of his saw and his hammer and his tools, and he said, ‘This glove is one of my tools,’” Gillick recalls. “He would take it and place it in a spot where it would not be disturbed while they were hitting.”

Boone compared his personality to Ichiro’s like “oil and water,” but says “from a sense of humor standpoint, we actually have a lot of similarities.” Throughout the year, Boone often made fun of Ichiro for “polishing his glove and making sure it was clean and pristine,” while the infielder tossed his own leather on the dugout steps between innings. “I used to tease him. ‘Who cares if your glove is clean? Mine’s just as gold as yours,’” Boone says. “He used to tell me, ‘Boone, you do not respect your equipment.’”

Ichiro used an interpreter with the media, limiting potential discrepancies caused by the language barrier, but often surprised coaches, teammates, and opponents by starting conversations in English and talking smack. This was most apparent during the 2001 All-Star Game in Seattle, when he told National League manager Bobby Valentine, “We’re going to kick your ass” shortly after being introduced as the AL’s leadoff hitter. Naturally, in a matchup between Seattle’s current star and its former one, Ichiro singled off Randy Johnson in the bottom of the first. The AL went on to win 4-1.

For the rest of the year, Ichiro and the Mariners didn’t slow down. They tied MLB’s regular-season record with 116 wins and had the third-highest bWAR in baseball history (67.1). Yet after narrowly escaping Cleveland in the ALDS, their season ended in the Bronx for the second straight year, with a loss to the Yankees in five games. “I remember how surreal it was on the bus just looking around like, ‘Did that just happen?’” Boone says.

When the Mariners were eliminated, current MLB vice president of international Jim Small couldn’t help but notice Ichiro’s reaction on TV. “I remember seeing his face, and this sounds strange, but he didn’t seem dejected, he seemed pissed,” Small says. “In Japan, practice is more important than necessarily the game, and if you don’t get the desired goal, it’s kind of OK to cry. … [But Ichiro] wasn’t just going to sit back and cry because they lost. He was just pissed.”

Small also reiterates how Ichiro’s rookie year had much bigger implications than just a championship. “He opened the eyes of America to Japanese baseball,” Small says. “What started as, What the heck is this guy? [became] Who’s next?

Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki slaps his third of t
This hit, against the White Sox in May 2001, extends his streak to 22 games
Photo credit should read DAN LEVINE/AFP via Getty Images

According to Tokyo-based journalist Midori Masujima, Japan long held an inferiority complex when it came to sports. Paraphrasing the writer in his 2021 book Tokyo Junkie, Whiting explains this stemmed from an “inability to prevail in international sports events, save for the odd marathon or judo triumph. Thus was there a craving for approval from overseas, for a vindication of Japan itself, that attached itself to the athletes who made their way across the Pacific.”

It’s a sentiment Masujima explored in a 2002 magazine essay while writing about the transformative power of stars like Nomo and Ichiro. “These Japanese athletes had taken the Japanese sports inferiority complex—the sense that the Japanese are not physically or experientially ready for world competition—and proved it wrong.” Masijuma added, “I believe that these athletes are not just about athletic talent. I believe that they represent a new way of thinking, a new philosophy that has arisen within Japanese society, and that this new philosophy will have a tremendous influence.”

As Whiting notes, because Ichiro played every day, he became daily national news, a sort of baseball emissary beating up American pitchers. “[People] would pick up the newspaper and see Ichiro got two hits, and then several paragraphs down you’d find out Seattle lost the game,” he says. “They didn’t care [about the team].” Throughout Tokyo, screens outside subway stations lit up with MLB highlights and live coverage of Mariners games sometimes starting at 4 a.m. in Japan, with people camped outside to watch. “I think Japan’s athletes can inspire such hope in the Japanese people,” Masujima wrote. “Not only are they standing shoulder to shoulder with their overseas peers, in some cases they are leading the way.”

Hideki Matsui followed Ichiro to the majors in 2003, crossing the Pacific and signing with the Yankees. He found similar and prolonged success, racking up 16 home runs and 106 RBIs in his 2003 rookie season and then taking home World Series MVP honors in 2009. Nicknamed Godzilla, the Yomiuri Giants outfielder had been Japan’s most prolific power hitter, superseding Ichiro in popularity thanks to his team’s mainstream appeal. That changed after Ichiro’s breakthrough in the U.S. “Matsui knew that the entire nation of Japan was looking at him,” Whiting says. “‘What are you going to do now?’”

By then, MLB clubs couldn’t afford to not have Pacific Rim scouts navigating both Japan and Korea. “You need somebody over there that knows the ins and outs of not only how the game’s played over there, but the culture,” former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry says. “It’s harder to get a handle on it from your own chair in Chicago or your own domestic scouts.” Colborn could attest, and after spending seven years as an MLB pitching coach, he returned to Japan in 2008 as the Rangers’ Pacific Rim scouting coordinator. Less than a decade after he’d left Japan, he noticed a dramatic difference. Inside the Tokyo Dome as a Mariners employee, “I’d be the only scout there,” he says. “I was treated like some kind of guest royalty. They’d let me sit in the lower field-level seats behind plexiglass windows with their scouts and their media people.” When he returned, “it got to the point where the American scouts were like a pest.”

Using Ichiro’s and Matsui’s success as a blueprint, more Japanese position players began testing their skills overseas, from So Taguchi and Kaz Matsui to Tadahito Iguchi and Kenji Johjima. Importantly, Japanese players “could measure themselves against Ichiro, who measured himself against MLB,” Colborn says. “There were a whole slew of guys that were maybe All-Stars in Japan but just not as outstanding a player [as Ichiro], but they found that there could be a role in MLB for those types of players.”

Seattle Mariners’ outfielder Ichiro Suzuki makes a
Ichiro makes a behind-the-back catch during batting practice at Yankee Stadium in April 2001

In 2008, Hendry engaged in a bidding war for star outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, a member of the Chunichi Dragons who had seen Ichiro’s success and was inspired to play abroad. “While I was playing at NPB and watching Ichiro playing well in the major leagues, my motivation became strong [to] play at the top level,” Fukudome says through an interpreter. “The influence of people like Ichiro and Matsui raised the reputation of Japanese fielders.” Earlier in the decade, Hendry had leaned on Pacific Rim scout Leon Lee to take the temperature of players eligible to be posted, and as the franchise’s international staff expanded, he found Fukudome fit a need in right field. “I think Ichiro and Matsui broke the ice, and from the Japanese players’ point of view, they wanted to come over here too, and prove they could play in the highest league in the world,” Hendry says. “So it was a mutual thing.”

The Cubs ultimately won negotiating rights for Fukudome, and the outfielder signed a four-year, $48 million contract. He became an All-Star in his first season and played for two other teams before leaving MLB in 2012. “Fukudome might not have had the reputation that Ichiro had, but he was a really good hitter, and I think there was more of a comfort zone that even though he wasn’t going to be a big power guy, everyone thought he was going to hit for a high average and hit for average power and play great defense in right field, which he did,” Hendry says. “By that time, it didn’t look like this was this giant gamble.”

Over the next decade, as Ichiro extended his career in New York and Miami, the level of Japanese baseball continued to rise. By 2006, when an Ichiro-led Japan beat the United States in the World Baseball Classic, MLB managers and players had noticed a change. “They’re taking some of our weight training regimens and the way we approach the game in the States and applying it to what they’re doing,” says Small, who lived in Japan from 2003 to 2019. At one MLB Japan All-Star Series in 2014, Small remembers U.S. manager John Farrell telling him the entire Japanese national lineup could have made an MLB roster. “The Japanese had been waiting their entire lives to compete against major league players,” Small says. “We used to kick their butts. Now the WBC comes around and they win. … Ichiro was a big part of that.”

It’s only fitting that two decades after Ichiro exploded onto the scene, Shohei Ohtani is having his own supernova MLB season. After being hampered by injuries in both 2018 and 2019, the Japanese star has now exceeded every expectation as a two-way player, leading the league in home runs (44) and total WAR (7.8) and posting a 3.36 ERA over 21 starts. Much like Ichiro during his breakout campaign, Ohtani is redefining the parameters of the game, gunning for the American League MVP, and representing his country with pride in front of awe-inspired fans.

“[Ichiro] is somebody I have followed most of my life, especially as another left-handed hitter,” Ohtani told ESPN in 2019, before Ichiro finished his Hall of Fame career in Japan. “He is somebody I have tried to mimic, not just hitting but playing-wise, even how he handles the media. He is a great model to follow.”

Indeed, Ichiro’s 2001 season provided a master class in unflappability, a model for excelling while living in a fishbowl existence. Carrying all of the responsibilities that came with being the first Japanese-born MLB position player, he never wavered. “I think he liked that challenge and he was uniquely equipped to handle it,” Stone says. “It’s what makes him a superstar, what makes him such a great player.”

Along with winning MVP and Rookie of the Year honors, Ichiro reimagined baseball stardom. Over the past 20 years, MLB has struggled to market and amplify its best players, until this latest wave of international stars: Ohtani, Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuña, and more. And the qualities that endear those players to fans resemble what resonated about Ichiro in 2001. “He’s a thin, frail-looking guy. But he comes to play every day and he’s got a looseness to him, and you don’t see any argumentative confrontations on the field that you want to cast him as the bad guy,” Colborn says. “It’s a charisma that I think has to do with stature and perceived vulnerability.”

Looking back at Ichiro’s 2001, Colborn says one other memory stands out. The former Orix pitching coach had taken the same job with the Dodgers that year, and embraced his friend in the dugout when the Mariners visited Los Angeles for a three-game series in July. Years earlier, at Nobuyuki’s urging, Colborn had promised to take care of Ichiro in his transition to the U.S.; ever the scout, Colborn warned Ichiro about that night’s Dodgers starting pitcher, and then made a prediction. “You’re going to hit a home run off Kevin Brown tonight,” Colborn remembers telling him.

About an hour later, Ichiro led off the game by hitting Brown’s fourth pitch 400 feet and depositing it into the right-field bleachers. Colborn smiled. “I just wanted Ichiro to do reasonably well and succeed,” he says. “It felt good for my soul.”

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in,, and The New York Times.

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