By LARRY LaRUE
The News Tribune
The News Tribune
Once he’d agreed upon the money and the years, Ichiro Suzuki didn’t ask the Seattle Mariners for his own jet or free office space – the only perk he wanted was an English teacher.
“He was looking for total immersion in the community,” team president Chuck Armstrong said Saturday from Kobe, Japan. “He and his wife wanted a fulltime English instructor.”
For three years and about $17 million, the Mariners landed a legend in Japanese baseball, a seven-time batting champion who receives mail even when it’s addressed only to his first name.
“I think the equivalent in America for how he’s viewed in Japan would be if Mark McGwire or Derek Jeter said they were going to play baseball in Japan,” said Tony Attanasio, Suzuki’s agent. “Ichiro is more like a rock star here.”
Roger Jongewaard, the Mariners assistant general manager who has seen Suzuki play since the outfielder’s days in the Hawaiin League eight years ago, said he may be bigger than a rock star.
“In 135 games one season, he had 210 hits,” Jongewaard said. “He’s a hitting machine, a guy who hit line drives all around the ballpark. And he’s got a great right-field arm. In Japan, between innings, he’d play catch with the left fielder – and fans would be ooooohing and ahhhing about his arm. He’s got a rifle.
“I’ll tell you how big he is in Japan; he dropped Nike to start his own line of clothing!”
Now, at 27, Suzuki is poised to become the first Japanese player ever to play a major league game.
“Our plan is for him to start in right field,” said Lee Pelekoudas, an assistant GM with the Mariners.
After months of speculation and three days of face-to-face negotiations in Japan, the Mariners landed the man they have wanted since he spent 10 days in spring training with them two years ago. In an off-season where the Mariners have altered their roster by dropping players – releasing Jose Mesa and Rickey Henderson – Suzuki is the first piece they’ve added.
A year after signing Japanese closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, who became the American League Rookie of the Year this month, the Mariners have signed a man who could be their leadoff hitter on opening night.
“He’s a lot like Johnny Damon, like Kenny Lofton,” Jongewaard said. “He’s a left-handed hitter with that high leg kick you see in Japan, and some of our people were worried that pitchers would pound him inside with fastballs, then with changeups on the outside corner.
“But the people who saw him most said ‘You don’t think they’ve tried that approach here? He still gets two hits a game.”
In addition to what the Mariners will pay Suzuki over the next three seasons, they’ll also now have to cough up that $13.125 million bid to the Orix Blue Wave that bought them the right to negotiate with Suzuki. And though he couldn’t pick the team he wanted to deal with, Suzuki apparently wanted Seattle from the beginning.
“I think Seattle was a factor,” Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said. “He wanted to play for a contending team, he wanted the West Coast and he knew Sasaki. He’s absolutely delighted by all this.”
He’s also aware, Attanasio said, that there will be an adjustment.
“Ichiro does recognize that the best players in the world are in the United States, and he has longed to be able to play with and against those players,” Attanasio said. “The biggest differences will be the travel demands, the food and the basic customs.
“Kazuhiro, for instance, at the first part of last season, didn’t believe it was appropriate for him to shake off the sign of Dan Wilson. More experienced pitchers educated him, and he adjusted.”
The Mariners will fly Suzuki to Seattle on Nov. 28, and he’ll take a physical the next day. After that, he’s a Mariner.
“He’s just elated,” Attanasio said. “This is a lifelong dream for him. He knows he’ll see pitchers who will throw to more weaknesses, but he has the capacity to adjust. This guys strength is his defense, his legs and his bat. He can play.”
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