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Sports : Wednesday, February 21, 2001

Ichiro's initial efforts speak volumes in several languages
By Bob Finnigan
Seattle Times staff reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. - Watching some of his regulars take their first round of hitting on the first day of full-squad workouts, Manager Lou Piniella studied Ichiro's initial practice swings and declared, "Perfecto."

The outfielder's reaction was, "Huh?"

"I said 'perfecto' ... perfect, in Spanish," the manager explained.

Later, Piniella said, "I figured out that it's going to be easier to have Ichiro learn Spanish than for me to learn Japanese."

Sounds like a good idea. Piniella sometimes mangles even English, and there is no doubt Ichiro is a quick study.

"His intelligence is off the charts," said Ted Heid, Pacific Rim scout for Seattle, and one of four interpreters in camp. "He is really smart."

The outfielder confirmed that he had done well in school "until junior-high school. It was important. I studied hard, got great marks. Then I went to high school."

Heid explained that talented young players get recruited by high schools in Japan. "The game is a big deal there," he explained.

"After I went to high school," Ichiro said, "all I did was baseball and sleeping."

Yet the innate intelligence remained, and Ichiro applies it to his play the way he once studied.

"Being quick-witted has helped me learn the game," he said. "I know, for instance, that over here in the U.S. I must take it one step at a time, see how it goes."

Piniella said the brain helps the bat.

"Intelligence plays a big part in hitting," he said. "You have to think up there. Edgar is a perfect example. Good thinker, good hitter. Olerud is another."

Of Ichiro's first day, the manager said: "He looked a bit nervous. He's going to fit in nicely, but I thought this first time out he was probably a little nervous."

Nerves might have been a natural result of being scrutinized by nearly 100 members of the Japanese media and recorded by a half-dozen Japanese film crews and 20 photographers.

Those who had been to Hideo Nomo's first day as a Dodger in 1995 said the crowd was much bigger at the Seattle camp. Tim Hevly, Mariner director of baseball information, said he has issued 121 credentials to Japanese media and major-league baseball has given out another 100, although not all of those are for Mariner coverage.

Kazu Sasaki said it appeared to be much the same as any day at the training camp of a Japanese baseball team.

"There are a lot of press there," the Mariner closer said.

After the workout, with a throng of reporters and cameras surrounding Ichiro, Sasaki stuck his head through the crowd and gave his teammate a big smile.

"It's good to see them asking questions of someone besides me," he said.

Sasaki and Ichiro remain close. "We get along well," Sasaki said. "I was friends with him in Japan and we've done some talking, gone out to eat, played some golf. I'll help him in any way I can."

Some of their talking was baseball, such as the much tougher rules against balks by pitchers to keep runners close in the U.S. Some was about the media attention. Hide Suyeoshi, Pacific Rim scouting assistant director, said the Japanese media sometimes is overly aggressive seeking stories. This spring, Ichiro reportedly was upset by reports in the Japanese media that he was eating rice cakes made by his wife with special rice from Japan.

Asked about this, Ichiro responded, "Who else would be making them?"

Heid explained, "It's a sensitive subject. What does it matter what he has for lunch? Does anyone write here what John Olerud had for lunch?"

Sasaki is also concerned about the crowd of Japanese media.

"Some of them are here to write baseball, but others are after personal stuff," he said. "I worry about which of them would be doing that. I don't want anyone following me home and prying into personal matters."

Suyeoshi said sometimes in Japan reporters wait outside players' homes, like paparazzi.

"I try hard to get along with the Japanese media, and with the American media," said Sasaki, who is easygoing with media from both countries. "But I worry that some reporters pry too much. I told Ichiro to be careful of what he says."

One night during the offseason, Sasaki was out having a few drinks when one of the people he was with took a secret picture of him.

"He must have had the camera in a bag," Sasaki said. "The picture wound up in a magazine."

Ichiro, for his part, seemed at ease with the media, responding affably in a series of interviews with Japanese TV, the Japanese print media and later U.S. writers.

He said he was not nervous.

"Maybe if it was my first day in Seattle or my first day in camp, I might have," he said. "But I've been here for weeks. This is just another day for me.

"As a baseball player I don't feel like a rookie. But I realize that among the Mariners I am a rookie."

The Mariners seem to have taken to their new right fielder, especially Jay Buhner, replaced after a decade in the Boneyard.

"I'm handling it as good as I can," said the man the fans call Bone. "It was going to happen sometime. But I didn't know it would be right now. It makes it a bit tougher to feel as good as I do and have this happen. But we'll see what works out."

In no way does this mean Buhner has a problem with Ichiro, whose locker is 10 feet from Buhner's, the place Alex Rodriguez used to occupy. (The Japanese media made a story of the fact that Ichiro had two locker units and only VIP players get that.)

"Ichi's a good guy," Buhner said. "He's going to be a big help to this team, and that's all that's important. He's smart, too. He understands a lot more English than he lets on ... right?"

Ichiro, sitting in front of his locker - eating a rice cake - just smiled and nodded.

Is he comfortable in the Seattle clubhouse? Before Heid could translate the question, Ichiro smiled.

"Very," he said. "Very comfortable."