/

Ichiro show rolls on in Canada

by Dan Moscoe

TORONTO — The Ichiro Show has played to rave reviews in the U.S. for the first six weeks of the baseball season. This past weekend, it was a smash hit in its Canadian debut.

During a three-game sweep over the Blue Jays at the SkyDome, Seattle Mariners’ outfielder Ichiro Suzuki was the talk of Toronto. He collected nine hits in 15 at-bats, scored seven runs, and on the first pitch of Sunday’s finale, extended his hitting streak to 19 games. Following a day off Monday, Ichiro has a chance to reach the 20-game plateau Tuesday against the White Sox. That would be a major-league high this season and move Ichiro closer to the all-time Mariners record of 24 set by Joey Cora in 1997.

Ichiro, whose average now sits at a gaudy .360, has been a hitting machine in his first season abroad. If he keeps it up, he’ll be a shoo-in to follow Mariners teammate and Japanese compatriot Kazuhiro Sasaki as American League Rookie of the Year.

The Ichiro Show is more than a hitting, running and fielding act. It also includes a horde of 40-odd media members from Ichiro’s homeland, who follow the 27-year-old superstar’s every move. Because of the media crush, a system has been devised whereby Japanese reporters pool all their questions with one scribe, who collects quotes from Ichiro after each game and shares the info with his peers.

Ichiro, the first position player from Japan to play in the major leagues, is rarely approached by members of the English-speaking media. But after Saturday’s 4-for-6 performance, which featured two singles, a double, a triple and three runs scored in an 11-7 M’s victory, they wanted to hear what he had to say. A crowd congregated around Ichiro’s clubhouse stall, while Seattle’s Director of Pacific Rim Scouting, Ted Heid, translated. Ichiro sat on a stool, his back to the scrum, and gave brief, quiet responses. If he had his way, he wouldn’t speak to the media at all, Heid told me prior to Sunday’s game. If he has a good game, he doesn’t consider it anything special, just part of his job.

And what a job Ichiro’s been doing. The A.L. Rookie of the Month for April has hit safely in 35 of his first 37 games this season, putting him on pace to hit safely in 153 of 162 games. That would shatter the major-league single-season record of 135 games, shared by Wade Boggs (1985) and Rogers Hornsby (1922) in the A.L., and Chuck Klein (1930) in the National League.

Ichiro leads the A.L. in several offensive categories, including hits (62), batting average with men on base (.472), and average with runners in scoring position (.548). He’s also the hardest to strike out, fanning only 10 times in 179 plate appearances.

To go along with big production at the plate, Ichiro has been rock-solid in the field and is one off the league lead in stolen bases with 11.

Just as impressive, has been Sasaki, although the Mariners closer is taking a back seat to Ichiro in the publicity department. The former Yokohama BayStars’ hurler nailed down the win Sunday with a hitless ninth inning for his major league-leading 17th save in 18 opportunities. Sasaki, who set the A.L. rookie record with 37 saves last season, has converted 44 of his last 46 chances since June of 2000. “Ichiro and I talked about wanting to play together from a long time ago,” said Sasaki, through his personal translator, after Friday’s game. “I’m definitely happy to have him playing together with me on the team.”

So are Mariners’ fans. With Ichiro starting things off as the leadoff batter and Sasaki finishing with deadly precision, the M’s have shot out of the gate with a 28-9 record, the best in the majors. The red-hot start is helping people forget about departed superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who signed a 10-year, quarter-billion-dollar deal with the Texas Rangers in the offseason.

The trip to Toronto was Ichiro’s first visit to Canada, but he didn’t have a chance to see much outside the SkyDome.

This dome is a lot like the ones in Japan and the turf is exactly the same, so I felt comfortable here.

For all three games of the series, signs spelling out Ichiro in Japanese could be seen scattered around the stadium, and chants of “Ichirooo” accompanied his every at-bat. The Blue Jays organization even got into the spirit of things, bringing in a troop of Taiko drummers for on-field performances before the two weekend games.

But most of the noise was made by Ichiro’s bat, and Toronto manager Buck Martinez was happy to see the last of the left-handed hitting whiz this season.

“He plays the game hard, the right way. He’s a very good player but I’m sick and tired of him,” quipped Martinez, a former broadcaster for the Blue Jays and ESPN. “He’s a very good hitter and he’s tough mentally. For example, he doesn’t bail out when a lefty throws him a slider.”

The Jays, like all 30 major teams, had a chance to acquire Ichiro this past offseason, when the Orix BlueWave allowed the seven-time Pacific League batting champion to walk away one year before serving the nine years required for free agency.

In exchange, the Kobe-based club was allowed to sell Ichiro’s rights to the highest bidder. Interested major league teams submitted sealed bids and the Mariners won out at $13.25 million. They then signed Ichiro to a three-year, $14 million contract. All tolled, that’s a cost of $9 million per year, good value for a player of his caliber in this day and age.

Ash confirmed that the Jays were one of the clubs to submit a bid, but we certainly weren’t in that league. Ash wouldn’t divulge the figure the Jays offered, but he and several other general managers around the majors are likely wishing their offers had been more than the lucky 13 the Mariners shelled out.

Notes:

* Seattle manager Piniella thinks Ichiro is one of the A.L.’s fastest players getting out of the batters box. “We haven’t seen all the teams yet, but he’s certainly in the top four or five he might just be the fastest.”

* Major League Baseball is planning to open the 2002 season with games in Japan, as it did in 2000 with a two-game series involving the Cubs and Mets. There has been speculation that the Mariners will be involved, but a member of their front office said it’s unlikely.

* The Blue Jays opened the 2001 season in Puerto Rico with a game against the Texas Rangers, and Ash said his team would jump at the chance to play in Japan. “All they need to do is ask. I’m very interested in the globalization of baseball and I think we in Canada probably have a more international view than they do in the States, so we’d be more than willing to do that.”