Griffey admires Ichiro's feat from afar

Griffey admires Ichiro's feat from afar

SEATTLE -- Just as the Ken Griffey Jr. celebration came to a close with the Mariners' 3-1 victory over the Angels on Sunday, the Safeco Field crowd watched Ichiro Suzuki lace his 3,000th Major League hit on the videoboard to complete quite a weekend for the Seattle baseball legends.

And Griffey, who played with Ichiro in his final two seasons with the Mariners in 2009-10, relished seeing his former teammate and friend achieve his own march into the history books. The sometimes aloof Ichiro let his guard down around Griffey, calling him "George" in reference to his given name of George Kenneth Griffey Jr., and the two often teased each other and engaged in clubhouse wrestling matches that almost always ended with Ichiro cackling as Griffey bearhugged and tickled him mercilessly.

"I got a first-row seat to watching one of the greatest ballplayers ever to play," Griffey said of his time with the Japanese star in Seattle. "The thing about sports is, it doesn't matter where you're from. If you can play this sport, you can flat play.

"To watch what he's done, day in and day out, is pretty impressive. For him to go out there and play and throw out the hits that he has is pretty incredible. It's a tribute to his work ethic and everything else that he believes in."

Unless Edgar Martinez sees a rapid rise in his voting totals, Ichiro will be the next Mariners representative to join Griffey in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, given he racked up 2,533 of his hits in 12 seasons with Seattle, and he earned all 10 of his All-Star bids and Gold Glove Awards in the Pacific Northwest.

But while Griffey pulled out his cellphone and called Willie Mays smack in the middle of his No. 24 retirement ceremony on Saturday night at Safeco Field, he's waiting to do the same with Ichiro.

"I know there are a lot of people reaching out to try to talk to him," Griffey said. "I'll wait till things settle down, because I know how it is. I know going after 500 and 600 home runs, I know what those numbers mean. So I'll wait until he's probably at 3,001, and then I'll call him."

Griffey has known Ichiro since 1999, when the then-25-year-old outfielder spent two weeks in Mariners camp in Peoria, Ariz., as part of a Japanese-American exchange program. Two years later, Ichiro signed with Seattle and won the 2001 American League MVP and Rookie of the Year honors for a team that won 116 games after Griffey had gone on to the Reds.

"When we first met, he had the first spring that was a little rough," Griffey said. "There's an adjustment period for everybody. Some people make it faster than others and some people have longevity. He was able to do both.

"You think about it, he was 3,000 miles away from what he was used to and at a Spring Training facility where he knows absolutely nobody. He had to learn how to adapt and you don't know who are your friends and who's not, who is saying stuff to you or about you. He's got to learn all that. He was able to go back, readjust and come back and the rest is pretty much history."

Statcast: Ichiro's 3,000th hit

And Griffey, one of the most accomplished players in the game, has watched with keen interest over the past few weeks as Ichiro closed in on becoming the 30th player in MLB history to reach the 3,000-hit level, despite not starting his Major League career until age 27.

"It's fun to watch, because you're looking at the box score and he goes 0-for-1 and you just scream and yell, 'C'mon!' Griffey said. "Every day, I look it up going, 'Has he done it? Let's go.' Because it is something special, not just for the guys who played with him, but for all of baseball and all the people in Japan. This is something that is huge, and I know he doesn't take it lightly. He works his butt off, day in and day out."

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.