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Sports : Thursday, November 30, 2000

Blaine Newnham / Times Associate Editor
Suzuki revs up in Safeco visit
 

Finally, someone who would rather be here than there.

It's a stretch to call Ichiro Suzuki a superstar, putting him in the category with Ken Griffey Jr, and Alex Rodríguez.

He'll be a 27-year-old rookie when the Mariners take the field next spring, the first Japanese player other than a pitcher to play in the major leagues.
 
The Seattle Times
Ichiro Suzuki and his wife Yumiko get a Safeco Field welcome from the Mariners. At center is Ichiro's agent Tony Attanasio.
He's got a lot to prove, and a lot of people to prove it to.

I've never seen as much commotion at a news conference for anything sporting in Seattle, not even the day Don James quit as coach of the Husky football team.

There were more than 100 reporters and cameramen in a stuffy room underneath Safeco Field yesterday as Ichiro (like soccer's Pele, he goes by one name) was introduced to the Western World.

Through the translations, he oozed a star quality that goes beyond the .387 average he hit last season for the Orix BlueWave. The thin beard, the steely eyes, the deep voice, the reverence from the hordes of Japanese journalists, it added up to something special.
 
The Seattle Times
Ichiro Suzuki tries on his new Mariner jersey for the first time during a press conference at Safeco Field. At right is Howard Lincoln.
Then he called Safeco "My Field of Dreams," not something bad for baseball, as Rodríguez is referring to the $500-million park these days.

How could last year's 2-1 win over the Chicago White Sox, ending a well-played sweep of the American League Division Series with a squeeze bunt, be bad for baseball?

"The best way to approach this park is to hit for extra bases," said Ichiro through an interpreter. "I don't think I can hit home runs with these skinny arms. I'm a gap-to-gap hitter."

In a gap-to-gap park.

The Mariners might want to shrink Safeco Field by 10 feet or so, but to do what Rodríguez suggests would negate the team's strength in pitching.

There was nothing unexciting about what happened last year at Safeco Field. Not every park needs to play like Baltimore's Camden Yards or Colorado's Coors Field.

If it needed proving, the Mariners underscored the long-held baseball notion that good pitching beats good hitting. They won at Safeco Field.

The Mariners think Ichiro can hit because he faced good pitching in Japan. They think he can hit because he always has.

The expanse of Safeco Field should be a perfect fit for him. He will use every square foot of grass. Mariner General Manager Pat Gillick called him one of the best left-handed hitters in the world.

Ichiro said he wanted to play for Seattle ever since he spent time with the Mariners in spring training two years ago. He had grown weary of the rigid and rigorous workouts in Japan, hitting and fielding for hours on end. Doing what you're told, and acting like you like it.

What he liked was Mariner Manager Lou Piniella. And Ken Griffey Jr. He liked everything but the ribs he ate that apparently made him sick.

It helped that Kazu Sasaki made it here, although he joked yesterday the association could be harmful if he allows himself to be lured into keeping the same hours and habits Sasaki does.

Ichiro doesn't drink.

It also helped that the Mariners are owned by the owner of Nintendo.

"I've played Nintendo games since I was a kid," Ichiro said

Seattle has always been an outpost for baseball, as far from the fertile fields of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico as you can get.

Away, too, from the media madness of New York and Los Angeles.

Ichiro brought the media with him, and suddenly Seattle has its own geographical edge, on the Pacific Rim, with its International District and plentiful supply of sushi.

Japanese players gravitate here. Ichiro is the third to sign with the Mariners.

"If I could play with Alex, that would be great for me," he said. "But as a human being, I understand he will make the best decision for him, and I will respect that."

Rodríguez isn't sure where he wants to play. The same can't be said for Ichiro. He's set at Safeco.