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Sports : Monday, April 02, 2001

Spotlight shines on Ichiro
By Danny O'Neil
Seattle Times staff reporter

The ceremony lasted more than 90 minutes. Ichiro spoke for only 4.

No one complained because his presence at Safeco Field was what more than 2,000 people wanted to see as they welcomed Japan's most famous baseball player to Seattle.

"Papers have said that he is like Michael Jordan," said Takuya Irisawa, a 21-year-old college student from Japan. "He is bigger than Michael Jordan because everybody knows Ichiro. Nobody knows who is the prime minister of Japan or who is the president in the United States, but everyone knows Ichiro."

Irisawa wore a navy-blue cloth as a cape, with Ichiro's name and No. 51 written in white. Irisawa waited outside in a drizzling rain 45 minutes before the ceremony, part of a line that stretched from the home-plate entrance gate to the right-field porch and doubling back before the gates opened at 6.

The Mariner roster lists Ichiro as a 27-year-old rookie, but he can't escape a role as national icon after seven straight Pacific League batting titles. Tonight, he becomes the first major-league position player from Japan when Seattle plays Oakland at 7:05 at Safeco Field. On the eve of that debut, many attended Ichiro's welcoming ceremony to offer encouragement.

"To live in the United States is very difficult, especially for Japanese people," said Ken Karahashi of Mill Creek, who moved from Japan two years ago. "Even though he has technique to hit a ball, it's a different country, different food and a different language."

The ceremony was sponsored by seven organizations for Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Relief pitcher Kazu Sasaki received the same kind of ceremony last season, though last night's was more elaborate. It included a Shinto ceremony, which is a Japanese religious rite praying for good luck in the season to come.

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell went so far as to issue an official proclamation that named yesterday Ichiro Suzuki Day.

Ichiro was a little embarrassed by the attention, said his translator. He didn't answer questions from the media, instead laughing as fans answered trivia questions about him, indicating the correct answers by their applause. Many in the crowd knew that he received massages, not ice cream, as a reward for grade-school practices.

No detail of Ichiro's experience is too small to escape scrutiny from the Japanese media contingent, which numbered more than 80 for the weekend exhibition games. After Saturday's game, a pack of cameras waited at Ichiro's locker while he showered. A team official had to tell some to shut off their cameras because they were filming Ichiro's empty locker, a violation of Major League Baseball rules. Mariner outfielder Al Martin had a locker next to Ichiro moved yesterday to escape the overflow of scrutiny.

Ichiro is used to that kind of coverage, just not as close. In Japan, reporters are not granted the same kind of access, and while Ichiro's celebrity here is no match for his status in Japan, it is growing.

After yesterday's game, a Japanese reporter asked Mariner Manager Lou Piniella why Ichiro didn't start. Then came a question about Ichiro's base-running technique, why he tries to run straight through the bag instead of veering right.

The questions will continue all season as Ichiro continues his adjustment to the major leagues and American life. So far, baseball has been the easiest part. He doubled in his first at-bat at Safeco Field during an exhibition game on Saturday and showed his speed with an infield single in yesterday's exhibition finale.

Ichiro batted .321 in spring training, with nine extra-base hits and was 2 for 4 over the weekend.

The real test begins tonight, in a game that Mariner CEO Howard Lincoln characterized as the culmination of a two-year dream by principal owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi.

"Mr. Yamauchi's dream will come true when Ichiro leads off in the bottom of the first inning," Lincoln said.