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Sports : Thursday, April 19, 2001

Steve Kelley / Seattle Times Columnist
A-Rod who? Ichiro the new fan favorite

Already, the cheers that greet every announcement of his name sound Griffey-like. He is a star before the first extended homestand is done.

Ichiro Suzuki is the new buzz that seems to start in the bleachers and swirl around Safeco like a wave.

His is the at-bat you stop everything for. He is the anticipation before the storm.

His beginning with the Seattle Mariners has been almost mythic. A Japanese remake of "The Natural."

Watch Ichiro for these first weeks of an impossibly long season and there is a rush to canonize him.

His throws remind us of Roberto Clemente. He makes catches that dare us to forget Ken Griffey Jr. He runs like Lou Brock.

He has a star's sense for the dramatic. The on-the-fly throw that nailed Terrence Long last week in Oakland.

The extra-inning home run that won a game in Texas. The 4-for-4 night on Tuesday that made the fans forget, if just briefly, their anger toward Alex Rodriguez.

Ichiro is like Griffey that way. He is a season of highlights waiting to happen.

"He's played 15 games," Manager Lou Piniella said. "He's gotten off to a good start. We're very pleased with him. But there's a lot of hurdles out there yet. To put superhuman expectations on him, would be self-defeating in purpose.

"Just let the guy relax. Let him get his at-bats. Keep on acclimating himself to the league. If we put the type of expectations on him here that he has on him in Japan, it would be very, very counterproductive."

Still, he has shaken the city with a team-rookie-record 13-game hitting streak that includes last night's sixth-inning home run. After 14 games, he was hitting .377, was tied for the league lead with 23 hits and had scored 10 runs.

It is the kind of start that begs hyperbole.

He hits like Rod Carew. He has the bat control of Tony Gwynn. He studies the game like Ted Williams.

He hits them where they ain't. He hits them where they can't reach them. Line drives into the gaps. Slices down the left-field line. Inside pitches turned on and pulled to right.

He isn't Ichi-Rod, as one clever signmaker insinuated this week. He won't hit 40 home runs. He won't drive in 130.

But he is the best leadoff hitter the Mariners ever have had. He can hit for a .300 average, with an on-base percentage to die for.

He is a threat to steal, a threat to take the extra base, a threat to do something every night. He is as quick and slippery as a thought.

He is a little bit like Arizona's Tony Womack and a lot like former Dodger Brett Butler.

"This is the leadoff hitter we've been looking for in the eight years I've been here," Piniella said. "Joey Cora, offensively, was a nice piece, but this kid here gives you the whole game."

He is that little bit of Hollywood the Mariners always have had since Griffey's first at-bat in 1989. He's the guy who brings an expectant hum with him to the plate. The guy you expect to do something dramatic every night.

With his legs.

With his lumber.

With his arm.

"I don't want to jinx him, but I think he's going to win a Gold Glove," hitting coach Gerald Perry said.

He is such a star in Japan, one media outlet apparently is willing to spend a $2 million bounty to see Ichiro in the nude.

I'd pay $25 a night just to see Ichiro make a catch in medium right with a runner tagging at third.

"We knew we were getting a darned good outfielder and we knew he had an excellent arm," Piniella said. "His speed has surprised me a little bit. He's quicker than I thought.

"I knew he wasn't going to strike out very much. I knew he wasn't going to walk very much. He was going to put the ball in play. How much he drove the ball? Now that was pure conjecture."

Remember in the middle of spring training when Piniella was concerned that Ichiro wasn't driving the ball?

Forget about it.

"Our concern was that he should be spreading the defense more," Piniella said. "But what I've seen with him, when we play these teams a second time, and he's a little more familiar with the pitching, he's been able to do a few more of the things that we expected him to do.

"It's not that easy. He's never seen these pitchers. It's a totally different game to him. He has to get a sense of how they're trying to pitch him."

The original plan was to bust him up and in. Feed him a steaming hot diet of high, tight, fastballs and dare him to turn on the ball.

"They're starting to mix it up more than anything else," Piniella said. "Initially, they were pitching him up and in, but he's gotten them away from that."

He steals bases. He steals home runs with over-the-wall catches. He slaps hits that sting like a Trinidad jab.

It's still April. There are 147 games left to play, but Ichiro feels like the real thing. He's living the hype.