On a late Thursday evening two weeks ago, the Seattle Mariners were bored to the point of flat-lining. Their charter had just landed at Toronto's Pearson International Airport and, as if taxes and Alan Thicke weren't enough reasons to dread crossing into Canada, everyone in the Mariners' traveling party had to slog through a tedious customs check and then claim his own luggage. As the men circled the baggage carousel, Gerald Perry, Seattle's hitting coach, began collecting $1 bills. The first guy whose luggage emerged would win the loot.
The average major league player salary this year is more than $2.2 million. Still, the average big league player would, given the chance, stand naked on the field and sing a rendition of Hall & Oates's Maneater for a free bologna sandwich. Hence, when the carousel lights started blinking to signal the imminent arrival of their bags, the Mariners packed in shoulder to shoulder, each one dreaming of that juicy wad of 28 singles. "It sounds like chump change," said Perry, who doesn't make anywhere near $2.2 million, "but we can all use the money."
Then—thud!—a small green Samsonite suitcase appeared. The one labeled in meticulous Japanese writing. The one belonging to rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki.
"Wizard!" the Mariners cried.
With bag in hand, the diminutive Suzuki—Wizard to his teammates—quietly walked up to Perry, grabbed the bills and, just as quickly, returned to his sheltered spot among taller, wider teammates. No gloating. No celebration. "Very calm and cool," said Perry, smiling. "Like he expected to win."
If there was little surprise that Suzuki won the pot, it was because, a quarter of the way through his first major league season, there's little surprise about anything he does. Suzuki is named American League Rookie of the Month for April? Big whoop. Suzuki has back-to-back single-double-triple games? Ho-hum. Suzuki rifles a one-hopper from the rightfield wall to home plate? Yawn. Suzuki's on pace to break George Sisler's 81-year-old record of 257 hits in a season? Zzzzzzzz. Suzuki imprisons Saddam Hussein, discovers a cure for AIDS and beats up Mike Tyson? You expected less?
In Japanese there's no direct translation for the word superstar. How about, simply, Ichiro (pronounced ee-chee-roh). How else to describe a man who, despite having never faced North American major league pitching (save for the random exhibition against touring big leaguers and a few spring training cuts), entered this week batting .365 (third in the American League); leading the league in hits (73), runs (40) and stolen bases (15); having strung together hitting streaks of 15 and 23 games (the latter snapped by the New York Yankees' Orlando Hernandez and Mariano Rivera in New York's 2-1,10-inning win at Safeco Field last Saturday), all the while filling the role of catalytic leadoff man as his club achieved the best record in baseball and built an 11-game lead over the second-place Oakland Athletics in the American League West?
It can be argued that Wade Boggs, George Brett and Tony Gwynn were the three best hitters for average of the past two decades. They hit safely in 39 out of 41 games four times in their combined 59 seasons. Suzuki began his major league career with such a run—while playing in unfamiliar stadiums in an unfamiliar country and while dealing with an unfamiliar language and eating unfamiliar foods. "He's a legitimate hitter, no question," says Yankees manager Joe Torre, whose team held Suzuki to four hits in 14 at bats while taking two of three games from 32-11 Seattle last weekend. "I don't think you can pitch him one way. You can go in and out, up and down, and he makes the adjustment. You can get ahead in the count, and Suzuki still seems relaxed. He doesn't seem to have any weaknesses."