SEATTLE -- He arrived as a skinny question mark. A star from a different galaxy, the first Japanese position player to sign a Major League contract. And an enigma even to the man entrusted to be his first big league manager.
Lou Piniella still laughs at his early memories of Ichiro Suzuki, who survived his initial curiosity and a constant throng of Japanese journalists monitoring his every move to put together a sterling 12-year career in Seattle that made him the best free-agent signing in Mariners history.
As Ichiro was approaching 3,000 MLB hits last summer for the Marlins, Piniella again recalled how he doubted Ichiro's bat speed in the early days of his first Spring Training with Seattle in 2001. When the new big leaguer kept spraying every pitch to left field, Piniella called over Ichiro's interpreter and told him to ask if the spritely 27-year-old could pull the ball.
After a dugout huddle, Ichiro went to the plate for his next at-bat and ripped a home run over the fence in right-center.
"He rounds the bases, steps on home plate and says, 'Happy now?'" Piniella recalled with a chuckle. "So I said, 'Do whatever you want.' I recognized then that this was a special talent."
Ichiro went on to hit .350 with 56 stolen bases and 127 runs, winning American League Rookie of the Year and MVP honors that season as well as the first of his 10 straight All-Star selections and Gold Glove awards.
For a Seattle franchise that hadn't achieved a great history of success in free agency, it was an amazing return on an original $27 million investment. The Mariners outbid the rest of MLB with a $13 million posting fee to the Orix Blue Wave in Japan for the right to negotiate with the star outfielder, then signed him to a three-year, $14 million contract.
He signed a four-year, $44 million extension to stay in Seattle through 2007, then a five-year, $90 million extension through 2012. The Mariners traded him to the Yankees midway through that final year, but he remains the franchise's all-time leader in batting average (.322) and hits (2,533), stolen bases (438) and at-bats (7,858) and figures to eventually be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a Mariner.
"Ichiro was a special player," Piniella said. "He had really good speed, he had that uncanny ability to put the ball in play. In the outfield, he played as well as you can expect, great throwing arm. He made the adjustment to American baseball very quickly, became one of the leaders in our clubhouse and was accepted by the players. He had a tremendous impact on our team."
• Robinson Cano: If anyone is going to challenge Ichiro for best free-agent signing in club history, the next man in line could well be the current Mariners second baseman. Cano clearly has the lead as the most-expensive free agent, with his 10-year, $240 million deal in 2014. Three years in, Cano has put up strong numbers and won a pair of All-Star bids, but he'll need to produce for that full decade to challenge Ichiro's impact.
• Bret Boone: The powerful second baseman initially signed a one-year, $3.25 million deal with Seattle in 2001, then re-upped on a four-year, $33 million free-agent contract the following season. And from 2001-04, Boone was sensational, averaging 30 homers and 112 RBIs with a .289/.349/.501 line while earning three Gold Gloves, two All-Star bids and twice finishing in the top 10 in AL MVP voting.
• Nelson Cruz: Another recent signee, the big slugger has certainly lived up to his four-year, $57 million deal over his first two seasons as he's ripped 87 home runs with 198 RBIs and a .294/.365/.561 line.