- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2001

I have a new hero.

His name is Ichiro.

Yup, Ichiro Suzuki, the smooth-swingin' right fielder for the Seattle Mariners by way of Kasugai, Japan, is my latest Man of the Moment. Every morning I scan the box scores, searching for his latest exploits. He almost never disappoints. Last weekend he had a single, double and triple in back-to-back games. Tuesday night, he ran his hitting streak to 20, four off the Mariners' record (and as long a streak as the departed A-Rod ever had). In fact, in only two of Seattle's first 38 games had Ichiro gone hitless. A rookie hasn't made this big a splash since Godzilla.

I first became enamored of Ichiro during a game against the Red Sox a few weeks ago. After getting drilled in the back with a pitch a new experience for him in America he came up again a couple of innings later and ripped a Derek Lowe fastball into the right-center field gap for three bases. "This guy is one tough gaijin," I said to myself. (That's Japanese for foreigner.)

Going into last night's late game, he was batting .362, third best in the American League. He also had 64 hits, which projects to brace yourself 273 over a 162-game season. We all know he's not going to get 273 hits (the record is 257), but he sure has had a heck of a six weeks.

Did anybody see this coming? I certainly didn't. I mean, I knew he was a great player over in Japan seven batting titles, seven Gold Gloves, three MVP awards, etc. but I didn't expect him to be Rod Carew. When the Mariners paid the Orix Blue Wave $13.1 million to release him from his contract, then shelled out another $15 million (over three years) to sign him, it seemed like an awful lot to spend for a 27-year-old leadoff hitter. Especially one with no real track record against U.S. pitching.

After all, a Japanese position player had never played in our big leagues before. A few pitchers had taken the plunge Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu and Masato Yoshii, to name three but no everyday types. (Many of us wondered what Sadaharu Oh, the Babe Ruth of Nippon, could have done over here, but we never got to find out.) With Ichiro, though and Tsuyoshi Shinjo, too (.295 in a platoon role with the Mets) we're getting a glimpse of just how good some of these Japanese players are.

Ichiro is a throwback. In an era of home runs and one-dimensional players, he sprays line drives and beats you every which way. He had three stolen bases in a game last week at Boston, and his fielding is so good that manager Lou Piniella already considers him "the measuring stick" at his position. His grasp of the game, says Lou, is just as impressive.

Ichiro would have fit perfectly into one of those Whitey Herzog teams in the '70s and '80s. (The artificial turf in Kansas City and St. Louis probably would have made him even better.) About the worst thing you can say about him is that he doesn't draw many walks (four in 177 at-bats). But then, he doesn't strike out much, either (a mere 11 times).

There are easier places to become famous than Seattle just ask Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, all of whom skipped town. But Ichiro is slowly becoming a national phenomenon. "SportsCenter" and "Baseball Tonight" routinely chronicle his adventures, and Sports Illustrated has already done a story on him and Shinjo.

Mariners fans, in a tizzy over the team's best-ever 29-9 start, have gone ga-ga over him. "Not in Seattle's 25 years in the major leagues," Post-Intelligencer columnist Art Thiel wrote yesterday, "has there been a hitter who can get mothers to pause while fixing dinner, fathers to halt channel surfing and ballpark patrons to scurry back from beer lines, just to witness an [Ichiro] infield grounder."

We've seen some major sea changes in sports in recent years. We've seen Europeans invade the NBA and the NHL. We've seen black quarterback become increasingly common in the NFL. We've seen Americans win the Tour de France. Are we ready for a team led by a 5-foot-9, 160-pound Japanese right fielder and a flame-throwing Japanese closer (Kazu Sasaki, last year's American League Rookie of the Year) to play in the World Series?

It could happen if Ichiro keeps treating AL pitching like his own personal tatami. (That's Japanese for floor mat.)

Hey, might as well start learning the language. From the sound of things, there are plenty more where he came from.

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