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Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Hargrove says Ichiro's contract won't be distraction

Associated Press

PEORIA, Ariz. -- One day after Ichiro Suzuki put the Seattle Mariners on notice that he is intrigued with entering free agency after this season, manager Mike Hargrove said the issue will not distract his team.

Unless his franchise player allows it to, that is.

"It depends on how much of a distraction he lets it be," Hargrove said Wednesday morning, after Suzuki acknowledged that he is looking at possibilities beyond his $44 million, four-year contract ending this fall -- and looking for Seattle to approach him with a contract offer.

"This is the first and last time I will be commenting on my free agency. ... It's to the point that I would like to take a big banner and put it up in the clubhouse: 'No questions about free agency!'"
-- Ichiro Suzuki

"Knowing Ichiro the two years I've known him, it won't be a distraction at all," Hargrove said.

Yet Hargrove believes it was natural for Suzuki to have thoughts about leaving Seattle and becoming a free agent for the first time.

"He's human. I'd think he'd be pretty intrigued by it. Everyone is," said Hargrove, who has gone 147-177 since arriving in Seattle before the 2005 season.

Suzuki said immediate Seattle improvement -- as in, beginning in April -- from three consecutive last-place finishes in the AL West is a must for him to consider re-signing. His price could reach $20 million per season, given his credentials and the current market.

"This feeling of unhappiness is something you can't get used to in the world of winning and losing. So I am very upset," Suzuki said Tuesday, through interpreter Ken Barron.

That was moments after Suzuki gained leverage on contract negotiations with the Mariners by saying "It is possible I will go to free agency" after the '07 season.

This is the first time in his professional life with Seattle and with Orix in Japan that Suzuki is playing the final season of a contract, barring a sudden signing that no one anticipates.

The Mariners won't comment publicly on progress of negotiations and team CEO Howard Lincoln will only say he absolutely hopes to re-sign Suzuki. But it appears the team and agent Tony Attanasio have yet to meet in person this year.

Attanasio has not returned repeated phone calls seeking comment.

"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. "So if you ask me is it possible that I will go to free agency, yes, it is possible."

Suzuki said he has no intention of letting the issue engulf his remade team. His influence over the team is already limited, for he shows no signs of breaking out of his renowned Seattle shell in which he meticulously prepares each day with a focused ritual that sets him even farther apart than he already is from his teammates.

Furthermore, Suzuki is already tired of talking about his contract issue -- after one day of spring training.

"I still have one year left on my contract. I want to fulfill that contract to the best of my abilities," he said.

"This is the first and last time I will be commenting on my free agency," he said. "It's to the point that I would like to take a big banner and put it up in the clubhouse: 'No questions about free agency!"'

Fat chance anyone would adhere to such a sign. This issue will dominate the Mariners until it is resolved.

Or Suzuki leaves.