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Originally published Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Ichiro creates a stir? Agent denies report that outfielder ready to walk

Ichiro's agent strongly disputed an article in the Japanese media this week that reportedly portrayed Ichiro as being prepared to walk away...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Ichiro's agent strongly disputed an article in the Japanese media this week that reportedly portrayed Ichiro as being prepared to walk away from the Mariners as a free agent after next season.

Nevertheless, the status of the Mariners' star outfielder is a growing issue with the opening of spring training just weeks away. Ichiro has one season left on the four-year, $44 million contract he signed after the 2003 season.

"We stand today where we stood weeks ago, months ago," Ichiro's agent, Tony Attanasio, said by phone from San Diego. "We have told the club that when they are prepared to talk, we would listen. I didn't say we would negotiate; I said we would listen.

"That's been Ichiro's position from Day 1 he came to Seattle. He has never made any protestations, demands or requests to go anyplace. He's got a new home in the Seattle area. He loves the community."

Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi, citing club policy, declined to discuss Ichiro's contract status.

A well-placed club source said the Mariners plan to make a strong effort to retain Ichiro, who in his six seasons in Seattle has won a Most Valuable Player award, two batting titles, six Gold Glove awards and surpassed 200 hits each season. He turned 33 this past October.

"We'll do everything we can to keep this guy forever," the source said. "There will be talks very soon about an extension. There are talks. We're in that process."

The source said the timing is delicate, and complicated by Japanese custom and the likely involvement of owner Hiroshi Yamauchi. But the source added, "I think he [Ichiro] wants to be here. The relationship has been good."

Attanasio said, "I really believe that the club has intentions of talking to us about an extension. When that will happen, I can't say. I know this — we will not be the ones knocking on the door to do that. That's not Ichiro's style or custom. He never does that."

Ichiro's status burst into the spotlight Friday when the Web site of Japan Baseball Daily posted a summation of a story in Sankei Sports, a Japanese-language daily sports newspaper.

The Web site reported "Ichiro tells Sankei Sports that he is out of Seattle after 2007!" It added that "his answers concerning the state of the Mariners were described as 'dripping with sarcasm.' Says that he is at the stage of his career where he wants to accomplish personal goals, one of which is to win a championship. So he is angling to go to a contender once he obtains free agency at the end of the schedule."

Attanasio said such comments by Ichiro would be "an absolute shock to me. He's publicity averse. If he had said something like that, I can almost guarantee he would have alerted me. He didn't do that."

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In an e-mail to The Seattle Times, Attanasio elaborated.

"I am convinced it is very typical of a 'Star Report' type of bad journalism. Ichiro is working out now on a daily basis. These workouts are open to the press and as is customary in Japan, the players say a few words after each workout. I can almost guarantee his comments were much less 'sarcastic' than reported.

"I could see him saying the same things he's said to [Seattle media] as well as the club officials: He's going to be prepared to the best of his ability; he takes pride in his performance; it would be good to win in Seattle and he would like that. He knows well his rights as a six-year player and will make those decisions down the line if and when necessary.

"We spoke prior to his departure and both agreed that those are his feelings and is what we would say when asked, because it is all accurate.

"The interesting thing about this piece is that it appears to be carried by only one paper [Sankei sports] ... if he said what they say he did, the story would be in all of the papers and not just this one."

Bavasi declined to comment on the Sankei story, citing both the translation difficulties and the team's policy against commenting on rumors.

It is indisputable, however, that the Mariners would face major decisions involving Ichiro if no contract extension can be reached. Their options would be to trade him prior to the season, trade him during the season, or keep him on the team and either resume negotiations next offseason or have him leave via free agency.

It is likely that Ichiro watched closely as the Mariners revamped the team during the offseason, and his evaluation of those moves might well determine whether he re-signs.

The Mariners have acquired a new right fielder (Jose Guillen) and designated hitter (Jose Vidro), two new starting pitchers (Miguel Batista and Horacio Ramirez) and a new setup reliever (Chris Reitsma).

Attanasio said he does not know Ichiro's reaction to the team's transactions.

"We haven't talked about that, let's put it that way," he said. "We have no choice in any of those moves."

The agent seemed to acknowledge, however, that the success of the team would be a factor in Ichiro's decision. The Mariners won a record 116 games his first season, but finished last the past three years.

"You know his personality, his desire to win, his professionalism," he said. "That's going to play a major part in any negotiation with any team, including the Mariners."

Based on Ichiro's career performance, his popularity and the staggering escalation of salaries, Ichiro won't come cheaply. By comparison, center fielder Gary Matthews, who has had just one season above .300, signed a five-year, $50 million contract with the Angels.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

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