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Sports : Friday, November 10, 2000

M's win bid to woo Suzuki: Seattle gets 30 days to sign Japanese star at cost of $13 million
By Larry Stone
Seattle Times staff reporter

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. - In the Mariners' grand plan, No. 51 will live again next season and it will be emblazoned with the name that in Japan is instantaneously recognizable.


As with Elvis and Tiger, no last name is necessary, and in fact Ichiro Suzuki, the biggest celebrity in Japanese baseball, officially dropped his several years ago.

The Mariners yesterday were awarded the negotiating rights to Suzuki, a seven-time Pacific League batting champion who is trying to become the first Japanese position player in the major leagues. In blind bidding among several major-league teams, the Mariners submitted the highest figure - a staggering $13.125 million (1.4 billion yen) that will go to the Orix BlueWave, Suzuki's team in Kobe, if the Mariners sign him within 30 days.

If, however, no contract agreement is reached by Dec. 9, no money will be exchanged, and Suzuki would play next season for the BlueWave and become a free agent next winter. The Mariners see Suzuki as their likely right fielder and a top-of-the-lineup hitter.

"This is a great player, one of the best players in the world," Mariner chairman Howard Lincoln said. "He's an extraordinary defensive player with a strong arm, and we think he could be a great leadoff hitter. His type of baseball and Safeco Field go hand in glove."

Lincoln hastened to add that the Mariners have crossed only the first hurdle in obtaining the 27-year-old Suzuki.

"The bid is merely an opportunity to get on the dance floor," he said. "We have been very interested in Suzuki. We wanted to make sure we won the bidding. There was competition. We won."

Though it has been assumed in baseball circles that Mariner owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, the chairman of Nintendo, ordered club executives to sign Ichiro at any cost, Lincoln insisted that never happened.

"That's simply not true," Lincoln said. "I've been dealing with Mr. Yamauchi for more than 20 years. He did not give me those instructions. He said, as he has in the past, it was `up to you guys' to make the call.

"Mr. Yamauchi dealt with this the same way he did with (Kazu) Sasaki. He left it to the management of the Seattle Mariners, to me and to (team president) Chuck Armstrong, to decide if we were going after him."

Suzuki is represented by the same agent as Sasaki, San Diego-based Tony Attanasio.

"It's an unbelievable number," Suzuki said of the bid, before he even knew which team had made it. "I'm relieved that there's been a show of interest in me."

"He's thrilled, and so am I," Attanasio said. "I directed the Sasaki thing, and I purposely directed it toward Seattle. I felt it was the right place for him to play. In this instance, I had no means to direct it; all I had was hope.

"I think this makes sense. I told all the other teams of the three criteria Ichiro was setting forth: One, proximity to a large Japanese community; No. 2, a contending club; and No. 3, the contract. The club may interpret No. 3 as an insignificant item, but I assure you it's not."

Attanasio said Sasaki and Suzuki are friends and recently dined together in Japan, where Sasaki is touring with the American All-Star team.

"He told him the positives of playing over here, but the question was also posed, `What are the negatives?' " Attanasio said. "Kazuhiro told him there are basically three. One is you have to get used to the food. Another is the travel is a lot more wearying on the body than he ever thought it would be. The third is that the caliber of play is different. Players are bigger, stronger, and they do things they don't do in Japan."

Negotiations are expected to begin next week, and Attanasio gave a strong hint as to how he views Suzuki's worth. He earned $5.5 million last year, when he hit .387.

"He's been compared very favorably to Kenny Lofton and Johnny Damon," Attanasio said.

Lofton makes $8 million a year, and Damon just rejected a contract close to $8 million.

"That's what this guy brings to the table, in addition to what he brings to Seattle specifically," Attanasio said. "You saw what Sasaki brought to the organization, and he's a closer. This guy is going to play every day.

"The excitement and enthusiasm within the Japanese community, and within the marketing concept of the club, is certainly weighed by them."

Gillick said of the comparison to Damon and Lofton, "We don't necessarily agree. We have budgets we have to stay within. We're not going to blow the house up to make this deal. If we make it, great; if we don't, we don't. I want to emphasize we do have a budget and we're going to maintain it."

"The salary, when it's determined, will be within the Mariners' salary structure," Armstrong added.

Despite the posturing, however, it seems likely that a deal will be forged.

"Clearly this is a club to which he wanted to go," Attanasio said. "This club, as demonstrated by their gesture and putting the money up front, wanted him. When those things happen, usually you're able to come to an agreement. This is an ideal situation for the club and player. It's the responsibility of both sides to get together somehow and some way. I would think something should be able to get done."

Gillick said he envisions "somewhere in the neighborhood" of a three-year deal. Countered Attanasio, "To Pat Gillick, a three-day contract with options every day after is logical."

Lincoln said the bid money did not come from the Mariner payroll budget, expected to be $75 million, which is significant because the team still hopes to re-sign Alex Rodriguez. It is the Mariners' hope that by pursuing Suzuki, they are sending a message to Rodriguez about their efforts to strengthen the team.

The Mariners now have about $45 million committed to 10 players: Aaron Sele ($7 million), John Olerud ($6.7 million), Jamie Moyer ($6 million), Edgar Martinez ($5.5 million), Al Martin ($5 million), Dan Wilson ($4.2 million), Sasaki ($4 million), Arthur Rhodes ($3 million), Mark McLemore ($2 million) and Stan Javier ($1.5 million).

"This is a separate issue than A-Rod," Gillick said. "We're still very much committed to bringing A-Rod back to Seattle. One of the things A-Rod told us all along, he wants a winning situation. If we're able to place this player under contract it will just enhance our ability to compete in 2001."

Gillick said the bid price is not out of line in light of bonuses that have been paid to No. 1 draft picks.

"When you really think about it, what did Travis Lee (a No. 1 pick out of San Diego State) get? Ten million? He was an unproven amateur guy," Gillick said. "Suzuki has a track record. I don't think it's out of boundaries."

Commissioner Bud Selig declined comment on the Suzuki matter other than to call the winning bid "surprising."

It's not known how many other teams bid for Suzuki. The Mets, Tigers, Indians, Red Sox and Dodgers were believed to be involved; the Yankees were not.

"Their team made a decision for their own organization," Met GM Steve Phillips said. "I think most teams anticipated Seattle would be aggressive with it. I don't think you can make a judgment on the package until the player is signed. The number doesn't mean anything until it's defined by a contract."

The Mariners hope to take that final step soon.Seattle Times reporter Bob Finnigan contributed to this report.