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Sports : Sunday, November 19, 2000

Mariners
Japan's newest export is a Mariner: Seattle signs Japanese star Ichiro
By Bob Finnigan
Seattle Times staff reporter

When Howard Lincoln concluded yesterday from Kobe, Japan, that "everyone's happy," to signify the Mariners had signed Ichiro Suzuki, the team's chairman and chief executive officer may not have come close to summing up the feelings of the Mariners' new right fielder.

Suzuki and wife Yumiko Fukushima yearned to come to Seattle, a team with which he had been comfortable in the 1999 Arizona spring training camp, with which best friend Kazu Sasaki had enjoyed his 2000 season experience.

According to Jim Colborn, Mariner director of Pacific Rim scouting, Suzuki was so overcome to learn in a meeting two weeks ago at the Orix BlueWave offices that he had been posted to the Mariners, "he got teary-eyed. His wife actually cried. This is what they wanted so much."

Suzuki's agent, Tony Attanasio of San Diego, said his man was filled with, "absolute, complete, unadulterated elation at the satisfaction of a lifelong dream to play, a., in the US; b, with the Seattle Mariners."

 

Thus, in contrast to the convoluted contractual dance involving US free agents like Alex Rodriguez, five Seattle club officials took only three days to reach agreement on a 3-year deal that will pay Suzuki an estimated $15 million to $18 million. Combined with the $13 million to Orix that Seattle bid for the right to negotiate, it is one of the biggest financial outlays for a player in club history, topped only by Ken Griffey's last extension at $32 million.

Seattle is expected to spend more than that soon. With Suzuki done, and Lincoln and Armstrong free to negotiate for other free agents, the Mariners are expected to pick up the pace of pursuing Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, meantime, was in Atlanta last week meeting with officials of the Braves.

"Keep an eye on that situation," said an official of an American League East team. "The Mariners think Atlanta is one place Alex would not mind playing."

Another club reportedly interested is the Texas Rangers.

"The owner (Tom Hicks) had a big year financially and wants to spend on his ballclub," an agent said. "He's flush with cash and wants to produce a winner and he wants Rodriguez. He knows they need pitching, too, and he's going after that as well."

Having finalized a deal with Suzuki, who will wear a uniform emblazoned with No. 51 and his legal name, "Ichiro," on the back, Lincoln now will turn his attention to Rodriguez.

 

The agent said one way to measure the impact Suzuki's signing had in Japan would be if a Japanese team signed the likes of Derek Jeter or Mark McGwire, "or, yes, Alex Rodroguez. But in this country, Ichiro might be bigger than A-Rod is in the US. When you mail Ichiro something from the States, you only have to use that name on the address and he gets it. He's that big."

 

 

 

"Signing Suzuki addresses several of our needs at one time," said Manager Lou Piniella from his Tampa home. "He gives us a top-of-the-lineup hitter with a good average and on-base percentage, (and) a left-handed bat to boot. At the same time he gives us a very, very good defensive player. He's a good two-way player and that fits perfectly into our theme. It's a good sign."

With the additional $13 million Seattle pays Orix to get Suzuki, it is a sign to Rodriguez and everyone who cares that the Mariners are serious about remaining competitive.

With Suzuki signed, Piniella is ready to make the first of his planned recruiting visits with Rodriguez in Miami.

"I'm just waiting for our guys to get back from Japan to see how they want to approach this," Piniella said. "Our strong preference is to get Alex back."

It may be interesting to see which player, Rodriguez or Suzuki, performs better with the pressures of a new contract. No matter how much the shortstop gets - millions or the moon - Rodriguez will not be facing the same task of Suzuki.

Suzuki is the Michael Jordan of Japan, so popular and so watched that he and Yumiko, well known herself in their country as a sportscaster, had to come to Los Angeles to be married last spring.

"They wanted some privacy," Colborn said.

Coming here to play, he will be carrying the hopes of a nation along with his bat on every trip to the plate.

"There is a natural trepidation over here," said Colborn, one of five Mariner officials in Japan for the negotiations. "This is their best player going over to our country. There is endless speculation how he'll do, it's in every conversation. There is concern he won't do as well, but as curious as that may seem to us, that won't disappoint them."

 

 

Suzuki is attempting to do what few foreigners other than Canadians and Latin Americans have done in the last half of this century - make it here as a position player.

"He's trying to do something no Japanese has done before, not a position player," Colborn said. "It's one thing for a pitcher to make the jump, a good arm is a good arm, and you sometimes see 20- and 21-year-old American kids make a successful move up to the majors because they have one.

"But it's much, much tougher for an everyday player. He has to handle the everyday challenge, hitting, hitting different styles of pitching, picking up signs, baserunning, defense."

The everyday player's job is much more complicated. And that's just the performance part.

"Ichiro has to learn a different pace of concentration and energy," Colborn said. "He's talked to Sasaki and was told a number of things. Kazu's biggest surprise was the rigors of the schedule, the wear and tear of travel. Kazu told him to learn to eat American food. He said `You'll like it.' "

Still, the Mariners cannot help but confess high expectations for Suzuki, based on what they know of his mental and physical approach to the game, along with his string of statistical achievements, capped by nine batting titles, the first two in his minor-league years, the last seven for Orix.

"What I remember more than anything else from Suzuki's weeks with us in camp (1999) was his work ethic," Piniella said. "And he had a flair to him, he carried himself like a superstar player. In fact, he reminded me of Carl Yastrzemski. He had the same gait, same carriage."

Yastrzemski was a standout for 23 years with the Boston Red Sox and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1989. He was known for the way he honored the game, playing it with dignity and fierce determination.

Colborn, who pitched against Yastrzemski, agreed.

"I can see why Lou compared him to Yaz. Yaz had that demeanor, almost touching on arrogance, and was meticulous and careful in playing the game; (he) even had a batter's box ritual when hitting."

 

 

Suzuki, who wears his baseball cap backward like a previous fan favorite in Seattle, has been known to converse with fans, to throw balls into the stands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In terms of Suzuki's playing ability, Piniella sees some of both Johnny Damon, a player the Mariners had sought from Kansas City, and San Diego's Tony Gwynn.

"Damon and Gwynn are the two players who come to mind when you see what Suzuki can do," Piniella said. "Those are pretty good players for comparison, and if he does that we would be ecstatic."

Suzuki, 180 pounds and 5-feet-9, plays solid defense and runs like the Kansas City outfielder, who led the AL with 46 stolen bases this year.

"And he has contact-hitting ability like Gwynn - hits line drives and uses the entire field," Piniella said. "As far as hitting goes, he has a fluid swing, solid mechanics."

This is in line with at least two scouts who watched Suzuki in playing time limited by an upset stomach in spring 1999.

"I liked what I saw of the guy's swing," a National League scout said. "He looked like he could turn on the hard stuff, and while I didn't see him hit that much, it appeared he kept back well enough to hit breaking stuff, too."

The AL scout saw Suzuki only in batting practice.

"I may be wrong," he said, "but I thought he showed more power than most people credit him for."

Mariner General Manager Pat Gillick said he had talked to a baseball man who had the same thought.

"The guy told me Suzuki might surprise, hit more homers than the 10-12 everyone has been talking about."

Colborn thought this could be, if Suzuki decided to go for distance instead of his customary line drives to all fields, like Gwynn.

"He has the ability to hit the ball hard," he said. "If he wanted to give up some of his plate coverage, Ichiro could hit some homers."

 

One year, according to Colborn, he did. In 1999, Suzuki hit 21 home runs.

"He seems to decide that he'll excel at one part of the game or another each year. Another year (1995), he led the league with 40 steals."

When comparing numbers, such as in 1994 when Suzuki became the first and only Japanese player with 200 hits, to U.S. totals, it must be remembered that the Japanese season is only 130 games.

"You also have to remember there is no telling how he really will adjust, but there is plenty of evidence he can and will," Colborn said. "For instance, when he came back to Japan after being in camp with us in 1999, he felt he had not shown his best. So he really focused and in one nine-game period I watched him right after that, he had one swing-and-miss and two foul balls, and he hit every ball on the screws. They weren't all hits, but they were all hammered."

How long must Mariner fans wait for this production?

 

Piniella estimated one training camp and spring exhibition season will do most of the adjustment for Suzuki.

Jay Buhner, who supports the signing of Suzuki to take his place in The Boneyard, didn't think it would take long.

"It was obvious from what we saw in camp that year that's he's at an elite level," said Buhner, a free agent. "The few at that level make transitions quicker than the rest of us."