M’s, several other teams covet Japanese star

  • LARRY LaRUE / The News Tribune
  • Friday, November 3, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

By LARRY LaRUE

The News Tribune

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. – In a system only major league baseball could create, about half the general managers who begin meeting here today are considering pursuit of Ichiro Suzuki – perhaps the player more big-league teams covet than any in the history of Japanese baseball.

But what had executives grumbling as they checked into the posh hotel here Friday was not what outlandish figure they might have to come up with to sign the seven-time Japanese league batting champion.

It was how much will it cost just to talk to him?

“You know that Albert Brooks movie, ‘The Scout?’” asked one National League assistant GM. “This scout finds a great player, brings all the GMs to Yankee Stadium to watch him pitch and hit, and then takes sealed bids – with the high bid getting the player.

“Well, that’s what we’ve done with Suzuki. And nobody has a clue how much to offer just for the right to talk to him.”

Including the Seattle Mariners.

In theory, the Mariners should have an inside track on the 27-year-old Suzuki. Two springs ago, he spent about two weeks in training camp with Seattle and loved it, and one of his best friends – closer Kazuhiro Sasaki – made the successful jump last year from Japan to the big leagues.

The problem is, Seattle might not get the chance to even talk to Suzuki this year.

Under the system drawn up by commissioner Bud Selig and his Japanese league counterpart, when a Japanese team designates one of its under-contract players, major league teams have four working days in which to file a secret bid.

That bid isn’t for the players contract – it’s simply for the right to negotiate with the player. And only the team with the highest bid gets that right.

“The way it’s set up, you send in a sealed bid on what you’re willing to pay the club, in this case the Orix Blue Wave, for the rights to talk to Suzuki,” Mariners assistant GM Lee Pelekoudas said. “If that high bid is accepted, you get the right to negotiate with the player for 30 days.

“If you sign him, the Japanese team keeps the money you bid. If you don’t sign him, he fulfills his contract in Japan and you get the money back.”

Because Suzuki is not a free agent – he has one more year on his contract – he can’t do the team-by-team tour Sasaki took last year, when Sasaki worked out for a half dozen teams before signing with the Mariners.

According to Suzuki’s agent, Tony Attanasio, the man with a career batting average of .353 has three criteria for picking a big-league team:

  • He wants to play for a contender.

  • He wants to play with a team in a city that has a strong Japanese community.

  • He wants a lot of money.

    But before a team can figure what it will take to sign Suzuki, it must determine – without knowing the market value – what it will take just to get the rights to talk to him.

    When the Anaheim Angels signed Japanese pitcher Shigetoshi Hasegawa four years ago, they paid the Blue Wave $1.5 just for his rights. And Hasegawa wasn’t nearly the star Suzuki is.

    “In Japan, Sasaki and Suzuki are like Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson,” Attanasio said. “There’s no one quite like them.”

    Before joining the Mariners, Sasaki had established the all-time Japanese saves record. Suzuki – five years younger – may have done something even more impressive.

    In seven full seasons in Japan, he has won seven batting titles.

    “He can hit, there’s no question about that,” manager Lou Piniella said. “He stays inside the ball well, he has line-drive power to all fields. He’s an above-average defensive outfielder, a good-looking left-handed hitter with the speed to hit first or second in a lineup. And he’s a great kid.”

    What the Mariners may remember most about Suzuki during his stay with them in spring training isn’t a surprisingly strong throwing arm, a high leg kick at the plate or the way he tried to play exhibition games despite food poisoning.

    No, what many with the team recall most is Suzuki’s last day in Arizona before flying home to Japan. He sat in the clubhouse for more than an hour, signing a baseball for everyone with the team – players, secretaries, equipment managers, public relations officials, front office employees, scouts.

    “My way of saying ‘Thank you,’ ” Suzuki said.

    And now?

    Suzuki could become the first Japanese position player ever to play in the big leagues, and he won’t come cheap. Last year, he was paid $5.3 million, and the Mariners, Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Indians have all expressed interest.

    Other teams might bid quietly. And no one has a clue where the bidding will start or how high it could go.

    What concerns some GMs, however, is the potential any one team has to dead-end this system this year.

    “High bid wins the right to talk to the kid,” one executive said, “and if that team doesn’t sign him, he’s not available again until next year.”

    What if, the executive said, someone like George Steinbrenner didn’t want the Mets – or anyone else – to get Suzuki. How could he stop them? Simply by making an outrageously high bid, winning the right to negotiate with Suzuki, but not signing him.

    “The way this works, it’s a one-time thing this year,” Pelekoudas said. “One team gets the chance to talk to him. If he doesn’t sign, no one talks to him again until he’s played out his 2001 contract.”

    So beginning today, baseball’s GMs will huddle in business meetings and discuss for a week rules changes – and maybe even an occasional trade. But for many of the high-profile teams, there will be a bit of teeth-grinding over Suzuki.

    On Wednesday, the game began. Orix made Suzuki available. That means major league teams must have their bids in within four working days, with the deadline falling in the middle of the GM meetings here.

    “It’s a bit like playing the lotto,” one GM said Friday, “except this lotto ticket costs a lot more.”

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