Japan's superstar begins second Mariner season at heart of admiring team

He is not merely the reigning Most Valuable Player of the American League. He is the inspiration of a nation, a phenomenon that transcends sport.

His surname is Suzuki. But in Japan, and now in the United States, he is known only as Ichiro. One name is sufficient, like Elvis, Madonna, Shaq or Elvira.

Since the early '90s, the Mariners have paraded a number of superstars, including Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. Last season, when his No. 51 jersey was the club's merchandising best seller, Ichiro may have eclipsed them all in terms of popularity.

'Understanding that interest in the team was greater than ever last season, Ichiro's popularity was still in proportion to that of Griffey Jr., and much higher than Rodriguez or Johnson,' says Jim La Shell, the team's director of retail operations. 'And I would put Ichiro No. 1 over Griffey.'

Ground rules

One season. Ichiban. Amazing.

Ichiro beat out teammate Bret Boone for the American League MVP award and was named Rookie of the Year, joining Boston's Fred Lynn (1975) as the only players to accomplish the dual feat.

The first Japanese-born position player in the majors led the AL with a .350 batting average and 56 stolen bases, the first player to do so since the Dodgers' Jackie Robinson accomplished the feat in the National League in 1949. Ichiro's 242 hits were the most in the big leagues since 1930. The leadoff man for the AL West champions also was the toughest player in the majors to strike out, fanning only 53 times in a league-high 738 plate appearances.

Ichiro understands English fairly well and is beginning to speak it more clearly and more often, but he prefers to employ an interpreter for interviews with English-speaking reporters.

Too bad about the language barrier, says Yumi Kaneko, a director-producer for Videocraft, which produces daily television news reports from the United States for the Tokyo Broadcasting System. 'Most of the time,' says Kaneko, a Japanese native and Los Angeles resident, 'it is something about Ichiro. He is a megastar. Everybody likes to know his every move. People in Japan are crazy about him.'

Ichiro, 28, is not always the most cooperative interview subject. He especially resents what he considers an invasion of privacy by Japanese media.

Each day last season, a Japanese pool reporter would go to the clubhouse to speak with Ichiro. He set his own ground rules: questions about baseball only, not his private life. And you had better come with some creativity.

'Often, Ichiro would not answer the questions,' Kaneko says. 'Sometimes, he thinks the question is not meaningful. He is very selective. He likes to focus on his job, and he doesn't like to be disrupted. That is why he gives us very few interviews.

'But once we do get to interview him, and he likes the questions, his answers are always very philosophical and profound. He is a fascinating person to know.'

Popular with teammates

Ichiro's teammates enjoy him, and he seems to join in the normal banter and horseplay that takes place in every clubhouse in baseball.

'He fits in great with this club,' veteran designated hitter Edgar Martinez says. 'He did, really, from Day One. Great sense of humor. Great teammate.'

Ichiro has learned enough of the language to communicate, pitcher Paul Abbott says.

'He is funny,' Abbott says. 'You zing him, he can come right back at you. And on the field, there are no problems (with communication). It's baseball, the same game internationally. You can get the point across.'

But Abbott notices a difference, too: 'He is definitely a superstar in the way he carries himself.'

Which is remarkable, because he is so small and slight of stature. It is the first thing you notice when you see him sitting in the clubhouse. He is 5-9 and 160 pounds, the smallest Mariner starter, the smallest of any of last season's All-Stars.

But he can run. And hit. And throw. Boy, can he.

Ichiro is athletically gifted, but work ethic and routine are major parts of the equation, Seattle pitcher Jamie Moyer says.

'I noticed last year, he kept himself pretty busy,' says the Mariners' 20-game winner. 'He has his own weight equipment down by the batting cages in Seattle. He likes to snack a little bit, but it seems like he is always doing something to prepare himself for battle. You can see the wheels turning upstairs. That is a great attribute. He is a very refined player in all aspects of the game.

'I enjoy watching him take batting practice and take his fly balls (in pre-game infield/outfield drills). He is very professional about it. People who come early to watch him take batting practice, that's where they get their money's worth, watching him perform his craft.

'There are no secrets to this game. You take your ground balls, you take your fly balls, you throw in the bullpen É whatever your position is, you work hard at what you're doing. I remember after he arrived for spring training last year. You look at him as the new guy coming in, and you don't know what to expect, and you watch him and say, 'Wow. I understand exactly why he is the player he is.' '

Mariner broadcaster Ron Fairly, a longtime major-league outfielder, remembers watching Ichiro in spring training last year and sharing Manager Lou Piniella's concern that the left-handed hitter couldn't pull the ball.

'Then we found out he could pull it when he wanted to,' Fairly says. 'We knew he was a good outfielder, that he could throw, and that he could run. But we didn't realize he was going to hit as well as he did with runners in scoring position, that he was as consistent a player as he turned out to be. He got off to a good start and never tapered off.

'He is a young man who does not have a lot of power, but he can do everything else.'

Ichiro says his popularity here despite the lack of home-run pop Ñ he hit eight homers last season Ñ has surprised and delighted him.

'I never thought someone who plays my style would have that much impact on the fans,' he says. 'When kids see someone like me make it, don't you think they think they can play in the big leagues, too?'

Knowing what to expect

Imagine the barriers Ichiro encountered last season. A different language. A different country. A different culture. A different league. New ballparks. Pitchers he had never faced before. The crush of media and fan attention.

'He seems much more comfortable this season,' Abbott says, 'which could be scary. He was uncomfortable last year, and he was the MVP. This year, he feels more a part of the team. It is what he wanted last year, but coming from Japan, he had 24 guys looking at him from afar to see what he is about.

'This year, we know what to expect, and he knows what to expect from us. Plus, he knows the league now. It is going to be fun to watch him.'

Martinez isn't sure it is humanly possible for Ichiro to improve on last season.

'He will feel more comfortable, have a better idea how the league works and what the stadiums are about,' Martinez says. 'But I mean, last year he was the best hitter with runners in scoring position, and he played so well defensively. Can he top that? I don't know, but I think he will come close.'

Ichiro smiles when asked the 'more comfortable' question.

'I will feel more comfortable than last year,' he says, 'but there will still be some difficult things to overcome. I don't ever really feel comfortable. It is difficult every time I step into the batter's box, especially with the high level of expectation.'

So far, Ichiro doesn't seem to get caught up in the game's pressures. Or maybe it is a matter of being capable of rising to the challenge. Last season, he established his reputation in the big leagues. This season, he will have the opportunity to build on it.

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