By Luis Cabrera
SEATTLE – Reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who signed a free-agent contract with the Seattle Mariners last week, isn’t caught up in the “Ichiro mania” of his native Japan.
In fact, he thinks Seattle right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, last year’s American League MVP and Rookie of the Year, will make a fine personal assistant.
“He’s still a rookie, and I can use him for a ‘go boy,’ right?” Hasegawa quipped Monday. “I’m going to ask him to get some food, get some drink, please. I can still say that in the U.S.”
Joking aside, Hasegawa, 33, a reliever who spent the last five seasons with the Anaheim Angels, said he’s thrilled to be reunited with his former teammate on the Orix Blue Wave of Kobe, Japan.
“That’s much better than if he’s going to be an enemy, like last year,” Hasegawa said on a conference call. “He’s just so good.”
Last season, Hasegawa was 5-6 with a 4.04 ERA in 46 appearances for Anaheim. The right-hander signed with the Angels as a free agent on Jan. 9, 1997, after playing six years for Orix. He has a Major League career record of 30-27 with a 3.85 ERA in 287 games.
Hasegawa signed a one-year, incentive-laden contract with Seattle that turns into a two-year deal worth a total of $4.5 million if he appears in 57 games or pitches 90 innings this season.
He spent May 20 to June 30 on the disabled list last season with an inflamed throwing shoulder and a partial tear of the rotator cuff, but he said Monday that his arm was strong and he felt no lingering effects.
Hasegawa also said he was surprised the Angels didn’t try harder to keep him.
Coming to Seattle was an easy choice, he said, and not just because it was a West Coast city with a large Japanese community.
“First of all, Seattle, I know, can win,” he said. “That’s why I chose Seattle.”
The Mariners tied the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the most regular-season victories in Major League history at 116. They were eliminated by the New York Yankees in the AL Championship series.
Hasegawa likely will fill the setup role left vacant by the trade of Jose Paniagua and two minor league pitching prospects to Colorado for third baseman Jeff Cirillo.
He said the Mariners have “an awesome bullpen,” especially with right-handed setup man Jeff Nelson, lefty Arthur Rhodes and closer and fellow Japanese national Kazuhiro Sasaki.
“I won’t have to pitch 10 days in a row now,” Hasegawa said.
He said he didn’t know Sasaki well, since they played in different leagues in Japan. But he expected to learn a lot from the closer, the 2000 AL Rookie of the Year, who was second in the league with 45 saves last year.
Hasegawa planned to call Suzuki this week and chat him up about the Mariners. The two were members of the 1996 Blue Wave team that won the Japan Series Championship – Japan’s World Series.
In fact, Hasegawa said he expects to spend more time in Seattle with Suzuki than he ever did in Kobe.
“After a couple of years, he was so big, that if I go out with him there’s going to be trouble. You know like, ‘hey Ichiro, hey Ichiro.’ We can’t talk,” Hasegawa said.
He may find private face time hard to come by in the Northwest, too.
Suzuki, a seven-time Japanese batting champ, is followed in Seattle by a contingent of as many as 100 Japanese reporters.
Suzuki took the American League by storm last season, leading the league in hitting at .350, hits with 242 and stolen bases with 56. Besides the MVP, he won the American League Rookie of the Year and a gold glove.
Hasegawa said Suzuki got an infield hit off him in their first meeting last year, and “I felt I’d won, that time.”
He said he’s long had a dream that U.S. teams would look more like the Mariners now do, with at least three Japanese nationals on each roster.
“I’m still dreaming like that.”
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