Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Suzuki intrigued by free agency, waits for Mariners' offer
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Ichiro Suzuki didn't look particularly
imposing. He never does.
Not with his lithe body in prime condition, as usual. And
certainly not with a pink T-shirt, black long sleeves, blue jeans
with camouflage patches, shiny silver sneakers and black-and-white
knit cap all clinging to him like a skateboarding teenager wearing
his little brother's clothes.
Yet Suzuki still imposed his will -- and thoughts about free
agency -- on the Mariners during his first day of spring training
Tuesday. Seattle's six-time All-Star and perennial Gold Glove
outfielder raised the leverage bar on contract negotiations by
saying "it is possible I will go to free agency" after the 2007
Suzuki's $44 million, four-year deal ends this fall. This is the
first time in his professional life with Seattle and with Orix in
Japan that he is playing the final season of a contract.
"I've played 15 years of professional baseball and I have never
filed for free agency. I have never had the choice, to choose for
myself which road I want to take," Suzuki said through interpreter
Ken Barron during a 25-minute session with English-language media,
after a lengthy session with Japanese reporters.
"So if you ask me is it possible that I will go to free agency,
yes, it is possible."
"But if you ask me what are my feelings toward it, at this
point I cannot express it. I am not even sure myself. But what I
can say is my mind is full of having the best season possible."
Suzuki said he does not know if the Mariners have approached his
agent, Tony Attanasio.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported Wednesday that Attanasio
has yet to get beyond preliminary talks with Bart Waldman, the
Mariners' chief negotiator.
"It's not all about money. We had a conversation Sunday night
and I asked him if, theoretically, the Mariners offered him a
billion-dollar contract, would he take it?" Attanasio told the
newspaper. "He said he'd have to think about it."
At spring training camp, Suzuki said merely, "the feeling of
unhappiness is something you can't get used to in the world of
winning or losing. So I am very upset."
This is the first time in Suzuki's professional life with
Seattle and with Orix in Japan that he is playing the final season
of a contract.
"Up to this point, it's been an easy road," he said. "(Now)
what I need to do is make my own decision on something."
For now, Suzuki has no idea whether he will stay with the only
major league team he's known since Seattle won bidding to sign him
out of Japan.
"I'm not ear-muffing my ears right now. I'm looking and I'm
listening, but I don't know," he said.
"I like baseball ... I know baseball is a job, but to me it's
really closer to a hobby than a job."
Last Thursday, Mariners chairman and CEO Howard Lincoln would
discuss the status of the talks as a matter of club policy.
"But I will say this," Lincoln told The Associated Press,
"that it's my hope Ichiro will finish his career as a Mariner --
and go into the Hall of Fame as a Mariner."
The Mariners added three starting pitchers this winter -- Jeff
Weaver, Horacio Ramirez and Miguel Batista -- plus designated hitter
Jose Vidro and outfielder Jose Guillen. Guillen's arrival in right
field is moving Suzuki to center field, where he occasionally
played for Orix from 1992-99.
Suzuki said how well those moves work will be one factor in his
decision whether to stay or go.
"Everything that was done in the past and has built up to this
point is an important part," Suzuki said, "but what happens in
the future in this season is important also."
Mike Hargrove said his experience of 15 seasons as a major
league manager has shown that "sometimes" a player is affected by
playing with contract negotiations looming.
"A lot of times, no. Players are really good at
compartmentalizing things," Seattle's manager said. "He
understands he's got a job to do and that affects how (a new
contract) turns out in the end.
"Ichiro is a strong-minded person."
Strength turned against Suzuki during his first spring workout.
Left-handed reliever George Sherrill buzzed two high-and-inside
fastballs near his head during rare batting practice against live
pitching. Suzuki bent his torso away both times, laughing with
catcher Rene Rivera after the second one.
A third Sherrill pitch inside pierced Suzuki's black bat, part
of a cherished collection that is specially cut from Japanese ao
damo (blue) trees and stored in a humidity controlled case. The bat
splintered from the barrel to the handle, with the larger piece
flying near first base. That created the rare sight of Suzuki
holding little more than a wooden knob.
A female fan watching from behind a chain-link fence dashed to
retrieve the surprise souvenir for her son, who proudly yelled,
"We got a broken bat!" After the woman wrote "2-20-07 Ichiro"
in black marker on the whitish inside portion of the fragment and
joked about selling it on eBay, a Mariners official approached to
ask for it back.
Why? Suzuki wanted to see why it broke, the spokesman said.
Sherrill has pitched the last three seasons for Seattle. He said
the meticulous Suzuki doesn't break many bats.
"Not enough to remember," Sherrill said, smiling, as if proud
of what he'd done.