Groz Remembers 2001 Mariners: When Ichiro became Ichiro
2001: A Baseball Odyssey – a weekly look back at the record-setting 2001 Mariners and the players who got them there.
Jan. 5, 2001 was certainly the red-letter day in the story of the 116-win 2001 Mariners. It was the day they signed Ichiro.
Less then month earlier, free agent Alex Rodriguez had surprised the team by signing with division rival Texas. That meant that in barely two years, the M’s had seen Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and A-Rod all leave the team, an unprecedented loss of star power. It seemed completely unfair to expect Ichiro to fill the gap.
At spring training in Arizona, Mariners manager Lou Piniella at times seemed perplexed by Ichiro’s approach; the young outfielder just seemed to be content to slap the ball the other way. It famously came to a head when Lou asked Ichiro if he ever turned on a pitch. Ichiro looked back and responded, “Sometimes,” then stepped to the plate and pulled a home run onto the berm. Piniella stopped worrying.
Ichiro was an immediate smash, hitting safely in 16 of his first 17 games. He showed off his arm in his 10th game, as well, with the “Star Wars” throw to nail Oakland’s Terrence Long trying to go first to third on a single, and it just kept getting better and better and better.
July 28 was a fairly typical night for Ichiro, who went 3 for 4 with a double, two RBIs and stole his 35th bag of the season in a 5-1 M’s win over Minnesota, raising his season average to .328 as the M’s improved to 75-29.
As good as it was going in July, Ichiro was just getting warmed up. The August month of his rookie season was one of the great months a Mariners hitter has ever had. He had 51 hits in just 28 games for a .429 average, doing a lot to propel him to American League Rookie of the Year and MVP honors at season’s end, where he joined Boston’s Fred Lynn (1975) as the only players in baseball history to win both awards in the same year.
It all seemed so unlikely that cold January day, but a new era of baseball had begun in Seattle.
More 2001 Mariners memories from Groz
• The curious case of Al Martin
• Freddy García replaces the ace he was traded for
• Kaz Sasaki and Seattle’s incredible bullpen
• Seattle hosts an All-Star Game for the ages
• The bounceback year of M’s Hall of Famer Dan Wilson
• Mark McLemore, the all-important 10th man
• Edgar Martinez cements his legacy with his last great season
• Aaron Sele, the pitcher who ‘fell from the sky’
• Bret Boone gave Seattle a huge, surprising boost
• Paul Abbott, the forgotten hero of the historic ’01 M’s
• Introduction: Celebrating the 2001 Mariners, 20 years later