First Things First

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He is not here to replace Alex Rodriguez or Ken Griffey Jr. After all, he is only one man with one name--ICHIRO. That is how it is above his locker, on the roster board in Manager Lou Piniella's office and on the back of his uniform.

The full name is Ichiro (E-she-row) Suzuki, but he prefers to use only his given name, and it is all he needed in Japan, where his renown and popularity were comparable to a rock star's.

"It's hard, really, to imagine how big he is over there," Ted Heid, Seattle's Pacific Rim scouting director, said. "It may be blasphemous, but I'd compare it to Michael Jordan, maybe bigger."

Big enough that Ichiro passes by the lenses and notebooks of an army of Japanese photographers and reporters every day, his every move scrutinized and analyzed from the time he arrives at the Seattle camp until he leaves. It's a response that puts Nomomania to shame.

And why not?

Slated to play right field and bat in any of the first three spots in the Seattle lineup, Ichiro won seven consecutive batting titles in Japan, has been described by New York Met Manager Bobby Valentine as one of the five best players in the world and will be the first position player from his country to play in the major leagues.

"A pioneer, like Lewis and Clark," said Piniella, who knows there is more involved than an exploration of new ground.

Ichiro, 27, is a major investment for the Mariners and a pivotal player if they are to overcome the loss of Rodriguez and remain competitive in the American League West.

No one is expecting the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Ichiro to personally carry the Mariners into the playoffs. However, his slash-and-run style--he is most often compared to Johnny Damon and Kenny Lofton--personifies how the Rodriguez and Griffey-less Mariners will go about it in roomy Safeco Field, and it is generally agreed he will successfully package his game for U.S. distribution.

"No one is expecting him to hit .350, which was his career average in Japan, but I think he might," said Jim Colborn, the Dodger pitching coach who, as Heid's predecessor as Seattle's Pacific Rim scouting director, wrote the most convincing scouting reports on Ichiro and probably knows him better than anyone in the U.S.

Colborn was the pitching coach for the Orix Blue Wave when Ichiro signed his first contract with that team in 1992, then later shepherded Ichiro when he came to Los Angeles each January to film Nissan commercials, throwing batting practice to him at UCLA, Pepperdine or Cal State Fullerton.

"My prediction has been that if he plays five years in the U.S., he'll vie for a batting championship, make the All-Star team and play regularly from the start," Colborn said from Vero Beach. "The first year will be an adjustment, but I still think he'll hit .300 every year, and beyond that he might win a Gold Glove."

Ichiro matched his seven batting titles with seven Gold Gloves in Japan. He hit .387 last year and .353 for his nine seasons. He hit 25 homers in his best power year, once made 216 consecutive plate appearances without striking out, had a remarkable 210 hits in a 130-game season in 1994 and did it all charismatically, said Colborn, adding:

"He's fun to watch, but it's just natural. He doesn't have to wear his socks high or invent a home run trot or do any kind of special styling. It's just the way he goes about it."

In a sealed process channeled through Commissioner Bud Selig's office after Orix had agreed to let Ichiro leave a year before becoming a free agent, the Mariners outbid four other clubs for negotiating rights by agreeing to pay the Blue Wave $13.125 million. The Dodgers were second, followed by the New York Mets, the Angels and the Cleveland Indians.

The Mariner bid is believed to have been several million more than that of the runner-up Dodgers, but then the club's Japanese ownership had partisan knowledge of Ichiro's talent and already had a working agreement with Orix.

The Mariners also liked what they saw of Ichiro when Orix trained at their complex two years ago and were influenced by their success with closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, who came from Japan on Colborn's recommendation to become American League rookie of the year last season. They also have a close relationship with agent Tony Attanasio, who represents Sasaki and Ichiro, as well as second baseman Mark McLemore.

In an agreement signed at the owners' Nintendo offices in Japan, Ichiro received a three-year, $14-million contract that also calls for a $78,000 housing allowance over the three years, a one-time moving allowance of $10,000, four first-class, round-trip plane tickets twice a year from Japan, and a personal trainer, a team trainer and transportation in the U.S.

Does Ichiro--accompanied by his wife Yumiko--require pampering and catering to, as some of his contract provisions make it seem?

That isn't the clubhouse perception. Players talk about his humor and humility, how well he fits in. He is also known to have recently rejected opportunities to be on the covers of both Sports Illustrated and Newsweek's Asian edition because he hasn't proven himself at the major league level.

"He's slid right into a slot here," said McLemore. "We're having a great time with him, finding out he's something of a clown. I've never been in Japan, but it looks like baseball humor is universal, and that's good to know. He says something funny every day in the course of a conversation."

Ichiro prefers to use an interpreter for interviews but can read and write English, according to Attanasio, and has quick retention, which became obvious the other day when he struck out against Kerry Wood and let loose a Spanish expletive, proving that pitcher Jose Paniagua has been an effective tutor.

"He's got Paniagua teaching him Spanish and [Jay] Buhner teaching him English," said Piniella, laughing. "He's in real good shape."

Ichiro's arrival moves Buhner, who hit 26 homers and drove in 82 runs despite injuries, to left field and a possible platoon role with Al Martin.

"I don't like losing my position, now that I'm healthy again," Buhner said. "On the other hand, Ichiro is a five-tool player who's going to create havoc for us and be here for several years. It doesn't hurt as much to lose it to a player with his talent."

Ideally, said Piniella, the Mariners--who recently rejected a Dodger offer of Gary Sheffield for Ichiro--would prefer to let him create havoc as a table setter, batting in his normal leadoff or No. 2 spot, but they may have to bat him third, hoping he can be a run producer. Piniella said he wants to keep Edgar Martinez in the cleanup role, with John Olerud behind him.

"We've lost two great No. 3 hitters the last two years," Piniella said, alluding to Griffey and Rodriguez. "Ichiro is not in that mold, but we have some options in the leadoff and No. 2 spots that we don't have at 3.

"There are 30 teams in major league baseball and probably only one can't tell you who will hit third. On the other hand, I can tell you what our rotation and bullpen are going to look like, and not many clubs can do that."

With Heid serving as interpreter, Ichiro said, "Obviously if the manager says bat third, I'm going to be the third batter. If that's best for the team, then that's what I'll do, but I think there are better third batters than me."

Ichiro said he hopes Seattle fans can accept him for the type of player he is and are not expecting Rodriguez-type power. Nor can he equate himself to any U.S. players because he has not established himself here yet.

He said it has been his dream to play in the U.S., and he would have always regretted not pursuing it.

"I didn't lose my desire to play in Japan, but it wasn't interesting to me anymore," he said. "I couldn't make my fans happy if I continued to play there. I felt there was a need for something else."

Of course, with the Japanese journalists around, it looks as if he has been accompanied here by half of his homeland.

"I don't think Ichiro feels he's carrying a banner, but it's obvious that the rest of his country does," Heid said.

Ichiro said he has to be careful not to let the media intrude on his personal life--a Japanese journalist hid a camera in a shoulder bag and snapped a picture of Sasaki having a drink with friends in a bar last year--and not let them interfere with his teammates.

"It kind of disturbs me, the way I am treated," he said. "I've asked the [Japanese media] not to come into the clubhouse at all. I have to go outside to talk to them in a group. I don't like to do that, but I'm willing to do it in the best interest of the team."

Ichiro knows it won't stop soon. A Japanese network is wiring Safeco Field for high-definition television and will televise all 81 home games to Japan.

Colborn said, "I remember going to the signing ceremony in Japan and telling the driver to take me to the Nintendo building and he said, 'Ah, Ichiro.'

"I said, 'How did you know that?' and he said, 'Children till they're 4, and grandfathers over 90 may not know who the emperor is but everyone knows Ichiro.' "

And now everyone in the U.S. will have the opportunity to learn what's in a name.

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