- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2001

SEATTLE The signs are scattered throughout the tunnels and hallways of Safeco Field, directing media members to various locations in the stadium. To the home team clubhouse, the visitors' clubhouse, the elevators, the press lounge, the playing field.
And they're all in Japanese.
Down on the playing field, a television reporter films his daily pregame spot, making sure to align himself so the diminutive player in the oversized Seattle Mariners pullover awaiting his turn in the batting cage is shown in the background. He's just one of the four dozen or so members of the Japanese media who hold season credentials.
Welcome to Seattle, which might as well be known as Tokyo West these days, what with all the commotion a 27-year-old outfielder from Kobe, Japan, named Ichiro Suzuki has stirred in these parts.
Nearly two months through his first season in the United States, Ichiro yes, he goes only by his first name, a phenomenon usually reserved for Brazilian or Italian soccer stars is living up to all the hype. The seven-time Japanese batting champion entered last night's late game against the Baltimore Orioles with a .355 batting average (third best in the American League), 81 hits (tops in the game) and the eyes of a nation fixated on his every move.
The irony of it all is that the man who helped make Ichiro's much-publicized arrival in America possible, relief pitcher Kazihiro Sasaki, is going virtually unnoticed, even though his contributions to the Mariners' ungodly 37-12 record have been just as vital.
Sasaki, a 33-year-old right-hander considered the greatest closer in Japanese history, drew some attention last season when he saved 37 games and was named AL Rookie of the Year. But it came nowhere close to the Ichiro-mania that has swept through the Pacific Northwest this spring.
While a mob of reporters converges behind Ichiro he sits facing his locker, not the writers or cameras after each game, Suzuki sits quietly at his cubicle on the other side of the Mariners' clubhouse. The throng typically does not bother to interview him unless Ichiro remains in hiding in the trainer's room. Suzuki then becomes the last resort, someone to answer questions about the other superstar.
The difference between their demeanors is night and day.
"Have you tried talking to Ichiro?" asks Masanori Hirose of the Naigai Times. "It's impossible because he's quite shy. He just wants to try to play baseball games. He's a good player for baseball. For us? He doesn't have as good an attitude."
And Sasaki?
"He's good. He smiles all the time."
And baffles opposing hitters with a fastball in the mid-90s and a split-finger fastball every bit as good as Hideo Nomo at his best.
Signed by Seattle shortly before the 2000 season, Sasaki was a 10-year veteran of the Japanese Central League, where he amassed a record 229 saves and 828 strikeouts in 599 innings. After proving his skills could translate to the American game, Sasaki was rewarded with a contract extension from the Mariners, who exercised a $5 million option for the 2002 season.
By contrast, Seattle paid the Orix Blue Wave $13 million just for the right to speak with Ichiro.
That hasn't prevented American fans from falling in love with Ichiro. He's the star attraction at Safeco, wowing crowds with his blazing speed and quick bat. He stands just 5-foot-9 and weighs a relatively scant 160 pounds but can fight off a high-and-tight fastball with the best of them, slapping balls to the opposite field or beating out infield grounders.
Of Ichiro's 81 hits this season, 18 have been of the infield-variety.
He's no stranger to Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, who first saw him play two winters ago while managing a team of U.S. All-Stars against Japan's best.
"The first thing I noticed about him was his speed," Hargrove said. "I had heard about him, I had read about him and I watched him in batting practice. Obviously, he had good hand-eye coordination, hit the ball down the line, didn't try to do too much and just did what he did best. After the second game, it was real obvious this guy was a player. I guess he was a pretty good player in the first game, too."


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