Mariners' Suzuki no surprise for Cougars' Winters.(Sports)
Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
May 18, 2001 | Bush, JoeByline: Joe Bush Daily Herald Sports Writer
Matt Winters knew Ichiro when Ichiro was only cool in Japan.
Winters, the Kane County Cougars' hitting coach, was a slugger for the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japanese League from 1990-1994.
His last three years in Japan were Ichiro Suzuki's first three with the Orix BlueWave, and since Winters' team was in the same division, he saw plenty of the Seattle right fielder who has wowed America.
"He was 18, and he just got drafted," Winters said. "You're talking about a real skinny little kid, and I remember Boomer Wells, a (BlueWave) first baseman saying 'This guy can swing it. This guy can hit.' He pinch hit a couple times - he wasn't an everyday player - and you could see it. Just a nice, fluid swing. The next year he played a little bit more, and then the third year he hit .350 or something."
Winters was a Marlins scout in Japan in 1995 and has since traveled there for the team in the off-season. He says Suzuki's subsequent success and fame in Japan didn't affect the then-center fielder.
"Great kid," Winter said. "Down to the earth. When I got a chance to say hello to him, he hadn't changed. Still the same guy he was."
That may not be impressive to Americans. After all, how famous could a guy get, especially since he played for team based in Kobe, not one of Japan's bigger markets?
"He's close to Michael (Jordan)," Winters says of Suzuki's Japanese celebrity. "Magazines, TV and everything, it's just all Ichiro. To get that status on a team that's not really the No. 1 team. The Tokyo Giants are like the Cubs, Yankees, Dodgers all wrapped up in one, and they have a center fielder - Matsui - who's the big star now, but Ichiro still outshone him."
Winters saw Suzuki's offensive promise but not the cannon arm that has everyone agog.
"He was a decent center fielder, but he didn't have the arm he does now," Winters said. "That developed when he got older. You could tell he was going to be a good ballplayer. You couldn't tell he was going to be this good, though. You knew he could hit, and if anybody could make the adjustment (to the major leagues), it would be him."
Suzuki needs only to stay healthy to win the American League Rookie of the Year award, repeating Seattle reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki's feat in 2000.
Sasaki set the Japanese record for saves before crossing the Pacific, which raised the question of whether veterans of foreign pro leagues should be considered rookies in the majors, thereby risking insulting the level of play in those countries. Winters doesn't think so.
"He's not a rookie," Winters said of Ichiro. "Was Sasaki a rookie? No. These guys have been playing at a level higher than Triple A and not quite major-league level, but a high level of baseball."
Winter said the success of the two Mariners won't necessarily open the floodgates of Japanese ballplayers, and the few more who give the major leagues a go won't be all that young.
"There's a few other position players over there right now who could come over and play, but those guys can be drafted out of high school, 18 years old, automatically make some good money and play for a major-league team over there, and on TV cross-country," Winters said.
"Kids grow up over there wanting to play for the Tokyo Giants, the Hanshin Tigers. Once they start getting better - Ichiro wanted to go against the best."
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