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Sports : Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Ichiro happily following his dream
By Bob Finnigan
Seattle Times staff reporter

The true test will come on trips to Kansas City, or even sooner at training camp in Arizona, places where there may not be enough Japanese for a decent game of gin rummy.

But for now, and for the past two weeks since he left his native country, Ichiro couldn't be happier with his decision to play baseball, especially to play it in Seattle.

"I am very, very comfortable here," said Ichiro, the name he wishes to go by, pronounced Ee-she-row, as Mariner official and interpreter Hide Sueyoshi explained, "with no inflection."

"I have no regrets about following my dream to play in the major leagues," said Ichiro, the new Mariner right fielder. "In fact, the only regret would have been if I did not follow my dream."

Ichiro, a national hero after winning seven straight batting championships in Japan's Pacific League, and his wife Yumiko are staying temporarily in a downtown hotel, from which he often walks to Safeco Field for daily workouts. Even with tens of thousands of Japanese and Japanese-Americans living here, he can move about anonymously, compared to the constant calls for his time and attention in his homeland.

He has already driven a car, an American car, although he expects to switch later to a more familiar Nissan. He has found the traffic here is not as bad as back in Japan.

"There are a lot of influences similar to Japan here, good things," Ichiro said. "But at the same time, some things are different. For instance, a lot of things are broken, like a lamp in the hotel room and a toilet there that runs on."

He told of buying a VCR last week.

"They told me if it breaks, just throw it away," he said. "You never heard that in Japan."

Most importantly, the food has been fine. In fact, while he has eaten typical American fare such as hot dogs, burgers and pizza, he has not had an "Ichiro Roll" yet.

"It's some kind of sushi," Ichiro said of the new menu item created in his name by a Japanese restaurant in Bellevue. "Some people made it up without even telling me. I've heard that it will make you full, so you should eat other stuff you want first."

According to the Japanese press, he should be able to buy his own favorite at Uwajimaya. Reporters wrote that the local Japanese grocery company's chairman, Tomio Moriguchi, met Ichiro recently and asked what food he liked, then noted that the player specified "beef tongue."

Lee Pelekoudas, Mariner assistant GM, predicts widespread popularity for the new guy.

"Wait until people get more familiar with him," Pelekoudas said. "He's some player, and he's really a good guy. People are going to take to him."

Along with almost-daily workouts, Ichiro has been busy establishing himself with the Japanese community in Seattle. Last weekend, he and Yumiko joined others attending a "mourning ceremony," in which they commemorated victims of the 1998 Hanshin earthquake that devastated much of their hometown of Kobe.

Ichiro and Mariner CEO Howard Lincoln previously visited with Tomiko Saiga, the Japanese consul-general here. The player also met with members of the Shunjukai, Seattle's Japanese Chamber of Commerce.

All this has been dutifully reported by members of the Japanese media, of which about a dozen are here following Ichiro even in the offseason.

"They write every day, which is difficult," he said. "So I meet with them every day. This is one area I get a little stressed out."

One of the reports described how his daily route to the ballpark took him "close to the scene of a big accident."

That would be where the truck knocked over the landmark Pioneer Square pergola, which happened hours before Ichiro passed that way.

In the relative privacy of the ballpark, he works in the weight room, doing leg presses with as much as 360 pounds, which makes Ichiro a lot stronger than he looks. He has been throwing to strengthen his arm and has been taking daily hitting.

Incidentally, those who saw him hit in training camp with Seattle in 1999 might not recognize him now. Swinging from the left side, he used to lift his front foot far off the ground, a la flamingo, straighten it with a kicking motion and largely slap at the ball.

He now hardly raises his foot, and his mechanics are much like those of most major-league hitters.

"I think it's a very good swing. I'm expecting good things from him," said hitting coach Gerald Perry, who was in town last week working with Mariner hitters. "He used to have that long leg kick like Sadaharu Oh. He doesn't use that any more and I like what I see so far."

Ichiro did not drop the leg to prepare for American pitching. He did it before last season in Japan.

"It was to improve my hitting," he said. "Without the leg kick, I could use my body more properly to produce more power."

Surprisingly, his power production fell off. While he hit a career-high .387, he had 15 fewer extra base hits, nine fewer homers and 54 RBI, his fewest since his first full season, 1994.

He hasn't changed anything since last year.

"I was told not to," he said.

Because Lou Piniella sees him as a leadoff hitter, the .387 average and .480 on base percentage, along with 21 steals, are the 2000 outputs Seattle puts emphasis on.

These are his chief hallmarks, along with an amazingly strong arm, uniform No. 51, and a habit of wearing his hat backward, like Ken Griffey Jr.

He doesn't seem unsettled by the fact that neither Griffey nor Alex Rodriguez is on the ballclub now, seeing Griffey leave after the 1999 season and knowing when he signed in early December that the shortstop might take off.

Mentioning the former Seattle stars, Ichiro smiled: "When I left Arizona in 1999, Griffey gave me a bat signed `See you in Seattle,' so it seems he lied to me. A-Rod told me not to get married before him, but I did. So maybe he got mad at me, and left."

Without those two on the club, Jay Buhner has had the most influence on the new player since his arrival earlier this month.

"He's been teaching me English, but I think he's a bad teacher," Ichiro said, smiling again. "He's teaching me what you call bad language."

When he has more time after coming back from training camp, he and Yumiko will find a place to live.

"I already know where," he said. "It will be somewhere within 15 minutes of the ballpark."

Yumiko will do the house hunting.

"I rely on her for all that," said Ichiro, apparently a wise husband in any language.

Copyright 2001 The Seattle Times Company