Suzuki to M’s signals trend

  • VALERIE REITMAN / Los Angeles Times
  • Saturday, November 11, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports


Los Angeles Times

TOKYO – Japan is in mourning for perhaps its most popular baseball hero ever, Ichiro Suzuki, who appears headed for a spot on the Seattle Mariners’ roster.

But his departure from Japan could be more significant than simply losing a seven-time batting champion, ace right fielder and national heartthrob.

It could presage a major loss in stature for baseball here, if the man who is known by his first name, Ichiro, does well.

“Japanese teams will become the minor league teams of major league ballclubs,” lamented Musaru Ikei, political science professor emeritus at Keio University and a baseball fanatic. “If Ichiro succeeds, other fielders will follow one after the other … just like Russian ice hockey, which now has no power and no popularity” because top players are signing with NHL teams.

Indeed, Japanese fans will be closely watching to see if Suzuki can cut it in the majors. About 10 Japanese stars have jumped to the major leagues, but they have all been pitchers, among them Hideki Irabu, Hideo Nomo, Masato Yoshii and Shigetoshi Hasegawa. Relief pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki of the Mariners was recently named the American League’s rookie of the year.

But Suzuki will be trying to make it as a leadoff or No. 2 hitter and outfielder, playing every day.

“This is the best opportunity we’ll have to see whether the No. 1 Japanese player can do well or not in the major leagues,” Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese pitcher to play in the U.S. in the 1960s, said in a telephone interview. “I think Japanese fans and Ichiro himself have mixed feelings, both of expectation and anxiety.”

Manager Bobby Valentine of the New York Mets, who managed in Japan, has called Suzuki “one of the five best position players in the world.” Speed, both in the outfield and on the basepaths, is one of Suzuki’s main attributes. He has averaged 28 steals over the last seven seasons.

But at about 5-feet-11 and 170 pounds, he lacks the brawn of many U.S. stars.

“Japanese fans expect him to achieve the same thing he did in Japan, but it’s too much,” said Daisuke Araki, a television commentator and former pitcher for the Yakult Swallows who was a minor league coach for the Cleveland Indians last year. “I don’t think Ichiro can beat the top-class U.S. players, but he’ll be able to play well with average major league players.”

In addition to their smaller size, Japanese players tend not to run and steal as aggressively as U.S. players, who have “more guts to win,” said Araki.

The Mariners won the bidding rights for the 27-year-old Suzuki this week, bidding $13.125 million that will be paid to the Orix Blue Wave of Kobe, Suzuki’s Japanese team. Other bidders were the Dodgers, Angels and Mets.

Salary must still be negotiated for Suzuki, who in nine seasons has a .353 batting average, with 118 home runs and 529 runs batted in. If the Mariners are unable to come to terms with Suzuki, he will return to Japan for another season and the Blue Wave will return the bidding money.

But Suzuki appears to be chasing a dream rather than money. He earned about $5 million in Japan last year and rejected a renewal offer of about $30 million over five years from the Orix to take a chance in the U.S. majors by letting the Orix post him for U.S. bids.

“I feel like a high school player a couple of days before the draft, very nervous, very excited, very eager to play in the U.S.,” Suzuki said after announcing that he wanted to go to the United States.

Suzuki joined the Blue Wave in 1992 after high school, originally as a pitcher, then later switching to right field.

Suzuki is popular with women in Japan.

“He’s not a showoff,” said Masumi Kurosaki, 28. “He is not flashy, which is quite common among baseball players.”

Yumiko Yamanaka, a 33-year-old nurse, thinks he has great self-confidence and that “his life is very cool. … His play is like a craftsman’s, very beautiful and solid.”

He scored big points with women fans by last year marrying a former television sports commentator seven years his senior. Just as unusual in clean-cut Japan, he wears a scraggly goatee and dresses casually, often wearing his baseball cap backward.

Suzuki probably will feel more at home in Seattle than perhaps any other U.S. city. Star relief pitcher Sasaki is his friend. And the team’s majority owners are executives with Japanese video game giant Nintendo.

The venue didn’t please all the fans left at home who are rooting for his success.

“I wish another team could have gotten him, so other major league teams would get attention of Japanese people,” said Ryuji Tamaki, 24, a salesman in Tokyo. “Japanese players should be scattered around.”

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