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Sports : Sunday, May 20, 2001

Larry Stone / Baseball reporter
Ichiro defies, invites comparisons
 

Suddenly, it's Ichiro's world, and we're all just borrowing space. Not since Fernando Valenzuela 20 years ago has a player hit the major leagues running and made such an immediate, global impact - and Fernando only did it every fifth day.

Suddenly, anything seems possible for Ichiro, the man with one name and a million ways to get on base.

A batting title to add to the seven straight he won in Japan? During a recent appearance by Mariner Manager Lou Piniella on Rob Dibble's ESPN radio show, Dibble told his former Reds manager he'd run naked through Times Square if Ichiro led the league in hitting.

"You'd better start working on your tan," Piniella responded.

A Most Valuable Player award to go along with his virtually assured Rookie of the Year status? Only Boston's Fred Lynn in 1975 has achieved that double, but for the first quarter of the season, has anyone been more valuable than Ichiro? Boston's Manny Ramirez has the eye-popping power statistics and .400 average, but through Friday's games Ramirez had yet to step onto the field, while Ichiro has been an impact player both defensively and on the basepaths. And the Mariners are winning at a clip more than 150 percentage points higher than the Red Sox.

"He's been sensational," said Lynn, who has watched Ichiro on television from his San Diego-area home. "When a guy comes in with the credentials he has, you know he's going to hit. The question is whether he can keep up the average he has, but it doesn't look like he's going to slow down any time soon."

Lynn points out that it's difficult, but not unprecedented, for a leadoff hitter to win the MVP award. Oakland's Rickey Henderson in 1990 was the last player to do so, and only a handful in history, including Pete Rose in 1973 and Maury Wills in 1962, have been MVPs.

"Traditionally, you have to hit home runs and drive in runs to be MVP," Lynn said. "There are too many guys with big offensive years that overshadow the leadoff hitters."

Then again, Ichiro is making us think about records like George Sisler's season hits mark (257 in 1920), which would undo a lot of overshadowing. And he tantalized us with his 23-game hitting streak into wondering if he could make a serious run at the most hallowed record - Joe DiMaggio's 56-game streak. That may be blasphemy, or the delusions of someone who is getting drunk on Ichimania. Then again, here's the opinion of an informed, objective observer: "He might be the guy to break 56. He runs, he has good bat control, a good idea of the strike zone. He might be the one guy I would say that about. I've been watching him, and he's just good."

Those are the words of Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, who lives in coastal Oregon and watches most Mariner games on TV. When DiMaggio had his streak in '41, Doerr was a 23-year-old budding star with the Red Sox, and he saw plenty of DiMaggio's streak, up close and personal.

The latest baseball craze is finding the most apt person with whom to compare Ichiro, and the selections have run the gamut - Brett Butler, Johnny Damon, Kenny Lofton, George Brett, Rod Carew, Matty Alou, even Vic Davalillo, a pinch-hitting specialist invoked this past week by Chicago White Sox Manager Jerry Manuel.

The 83-year-old Doerr, however, expanded the horizons during a recent telephone interview. "I saw Paul Waner hit a few times, and this guy is a lot like that," Doerr said.

Waner had 3,152 hits and a .333 average in his 20-year, Hall of Fame career that ended in 1945. He was known as Big Poison, and his younger brother Lloyd, another Hall of Famer, was Little Poison. Lloyd Waner holds the major-league record for hits by a rookie with 223 for the Pirates in 1927, a mark that Ichiro might put in serious peril.

"I keep thinking back, and Bill Dickey had a style of hitting a whole lot like Ichiro," continued Doerr of the Yankee Hall of Fame catcher who played from 1928 to '46 and hit a career .313. "His body would start forward, but he had such great bat control, he could hold back. Dickey was a much bigger man, but their style was similar. It's just fun watching them."

The comparison favored by Piniella and Toronto Manager Buck Martinez is Ralph Garr, one of the better hitters of the '70s and a batting champion. Another informed observer seconds that opinion.

"Let me tell you, I said the same thing," Garr, now 55, said excitedly from Houston, where he scouts for Atlanta. "He bats completely off-beat, but he keeps his head in the hitting zone, regardless of what his body is doing. I was a lot similar. I was watching him on TV the other day, stepping toward third and hitting the other way. That's what I did. It's a great comparison."

Garr was just getting warmed up. "He looks like he can't do anything, but look at the numbers. He can throw, run. He can do everything. He sprays it all over. There's no way to defense him. What I really like is that he has some pop. If you don't have pop, they can pitch you away and collar you, but he's strong enough to keep them honest. He's so fast they have to play in, but if they're too close he can knock their teeth out.

"Like me, Ichiro looks like he's awkward and not thinking, but we're thinking. Sometimes, we might look ridiculous, but if the pitcher comes back with the same pitch we'll scald it. There's no pitch you can throw him consistently that he won't do some damage. I'm really glad a guy like that came into the league. It's great for baseball."