As a sophomore at Waseda University in 2001, Nori Aoki tuned into the same phenomenon 12 million others did in Japan:
Outfielder Ichiro Suzuki’s major-league debut with the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field.
For 12 seasons, Ichiro served as not only the Mariners’ leadoff batter, but was one of baseball’s peskiest, work-the-count hitters.
And on Friday, it was Aoki’s turn to follow in his countryman’s footsteps. He led off in the Mariners’ home opener against the Oakland Athletics.
“This is a very familiar ballpark for me being able to watch the games from when I was in high school and college,” said Aoki through team translator Antony Suzuki. “It is a dream for me. It is a fresh start for me, too.”
Now the 34-year-old Aoki, with his fourth major-league organization in five seasons, certainly doesn’t carry the same celebrity fanfare as Ichiro, a surefire future Hall of Famer who still plays at age 42 with the Miami Marlins.
But the two share uncanny similarities:
▪ Both are about the same size — Ichiro is 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, and Aoki is 5-9, 180 — and started out as pitchers before switching to the outfield.
▪ Both bat left-handed, and throw right-handed.
▪ Both were seven-time all-stars at the ichi-gun (major-league) level in Japan.
▪ Ichiro’s career on-base percentage in Japan was .421; Aoki was .402. In the major leagues, Ichiro’s MLB career on-base percentage is .356; Aoki’s is .353.
▪ They are easily the longest-tenured leadoff hitters in the majors to come from Japan. Nearly 86 percent of Aoki’s career plate appearances have been atop the lineup, compared to Ichiro’s 82 percent in the leadoff spot (which fell off dramatically after Seattle traded him to the New York Yankees in 2012).
Since most Mariners games during Ichiro’s rookie season were televised, Aoki watched nearly all of them.
“I remember every moment,” Aoki said.
And he studied Ichiro closely — his swing, his hitting approach and the in-game adjustments.
“(Ichiro) has a very unique way of hitting — it’s a little different,” Aoki said. “There are things you can imitate; things you can’t. The way he adapts his game (in Japan) to the game here was very unique. You can see him making changes here and there on a daily basis. That is something I have learned with my approach.”
After spending two seasons in Milwaukee (2012-13), and one season in Kansas City (2014) and San Francisco (2015), Aoki signed a one-year, $5.5-million deal with Seattle in December.
Entering Friday, Aoki has played in all three Mariners games this season with a .300 batting average.
“What has impressed me about Nori is he has a very consistent approach,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He is very professional. He’s played a long time. … He has a game plan, and he does not deviate from it.”
And he is one tough dude, Servais said.
Aoki hit a foul ball off his leg Tuesday night in the Mariners’ 10-2 win at Texas. The next day, it was so sore, Aoki could not start in the outfield.
But he came on as a pinch hitter to lead off the ninth inning, and his single off closer Shawn Tolleson sparked the team’s five-run rally to win, 9-5.
“It said a lot about him,” Servais said.
And Aoki vigorously sprinted out on the red carpet from right field during pregame introductions Friday, ready to contribute in the same way Ichiro did 15 years ago against the same opponent — the Athletics.
“Definitely 2001 was a special year — for the Mariners and for the country of Japan,” Aoki said. “He was a star. Like I said before, he was a pioneer. I’ve seen a lot of kids and ex-teammates who have tried to imitate what he has done.”