Ichiro's 'kind of fun' spring slump reaches 0-for-21

TUCSON, Ariz. &

A swarm of fans six deep crowded around the screen that separated Ichiro Suzuki from the grandstand.

"That was amazing!" a teenage boy gasped when Seattle's perennial All-Star finished an impromptu autograph session.

Suzuki spent 10 minutes exchanging balls and photos through a small opening atop a gate one hour before Tuesday's game against Colorado. Eight rows above that scene, in Section N, a senior woman under a large Rockies sun hat turned to a man two seats to her right.

"He hasn't lost his popularity, has he?" she said.

No, after the most successful start to a hitting career the major leagues has seen, "Ichiro-san" remains a revered, international superstar. Not even an 0-for-21 start to spring training can change that.

He has his own, full-time translator employed by the Mariners, Ken Barron. He's still as fresh as in 2001, when he arrived as Japan's first premier position player import. Still as hip as his chic, urban wardrobe of faded jeans, outlandish T-shirts that shrink-wrap his sleek body and shiny gold or silver sneakers.

A marketing initiative in Asia by San Francisco-based Levi's recently produced a limited line of designer jeans for the 34-year-old Suzuki. The 320 pairs reportedly sold out in six minutes.

So what's this? Suzuki is 0-for-spring training?

Yes, Tuesday brought another hitless day. He has the most at-bats without a hit for any player in baseball this spring. It is three short of his longest regular-season hitless streak, in 2005.

So what? It's March.

"I don't understand what I need to be worried about," Suzuki said Tuesday through Barron, after a groundout to the pitcher, two lazy flyouts and a sharp grounder on which sprawling third baseman Ian Stewart robbed him.

Suzuki's feet were propped onto the chair he was sitting in at his locker. His arms were resting on his knees. The look was decidedly unconcerned.

But nothing is ever so-what around this icon of Japan, the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

The pack of two dozen Japanese reporters who follow his every move are holding their breath for his first hit &

so much so that Suzuki says he is feeling sympathy from others.

"I am very thankful that people when I am not hitting care so much about this," he said. "I am grateful."

And &

get this &

he's not necessarily eager to get his first hit of 2008.

"To tell you the truth, some of this is kind of fun," he said. "To be in a situation this early, in spring training, and have this kind of a little bit intense environment is something I couldn't experience before. Basically, it's a situation where I need to battle within myself mentally. That's something I haven't experienced this time of the year. ... This is great for me."

Rare failure as a positive. That's the result of seven consecutive All-Star games, seven consecutive Gold Gloves in the outfield and of being the only player with seven straight 200-hit seasons to begin a career.

His manager, the affable John McLaren, is trying to make light of this growing curiosity, reminding all that nothing matters until opening day, March 31. That's when Suzuki will begin his attempt to break the AL record he shares with Wade Boggs for consecutive seasons of 200 hits. An eighth time would tie Willie Keeler for most in major league history.

"I know I am obligated to answer the questions, but how many batting titles has he won?" McLaren said, knowing the answer is two in the major leagues and seven in Japan. "I think it's funny.

"Put him down for a batting title. Put my name next to it, please."

Last week, McLaren joked he might have to send the star down to Triple-A Tacoma to start the season. The Japanese throng surrounding him wasn't amused.

"They looked at me like I was crazy," McLaren said, chuckling.

Suzuki laughed and flashed a huge grin as McLaren patted him on the back before his third at-bat, another fly ball and U-turn shuffle back to the dugout. He is now asking McLaren for extra at-bats late in games, to vacate this uncommon ground.

Why does a star secure with the $90 million contract he got from Seattle last summer to remain the franchise's cornerstone feel the need for results in March?

"Because there's people paying money to see me play here," he said.

Kosuke Fukudome, the new arrival from Japan that the Chicago Cubs are paying to be the next Ichiro, met Suzuki as a major leaguer for the first time in a game last week. Did the sage Suzuki give advice to Fukudome?

"I'm not even in a position to give him advice," Suzuki said.

Because Suzuki doesn't have a hit this spring?

"No. I'm not a coach," he said, smiling.

So when does this benefit of rare March intensity go from a positive to a problem? When does an 0-for-spring become oh, no?

"I don't really have a timeline, but if Mac sees this happening and he starts panicking, that's when it might start being a problem," he said, smiling again.

"So more than a concern for me, it's probably a concern for others."

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