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Originally published Sunday, February 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Ichiro's next step subject of speculation

One hundred fourteen steps. That's how long the staircase is that winds up a hillside park adjacent to the stadium where Ichiro played during...

Special to The Seattle Times

KOBE, Japan — One hundred fourteen steps. That's how long the staircase is that winds up a hillside park adjacent to the stadium where Ichiro played during his years with the Orix Blue Wave.

He still comes here regularly as part of his offseason training to sprint to the top, touching every step his first five times up. After that, it's every other step, and on this day, there were 17 of those two-steps-at-a-time ascents.

During a break from his thorough training regimen, Ichiro is asked about entering what could be his final season with the Mariners. He is in the last year of his contract and could become a free agent.

"I've barely given it any thought," he replies with indifference to the first such season in his 16 years as a pro. "That's why I have an agent. I'm simply focused on making this season the best that I can. It's the same goal of every offseason, and I haven't approached this one any differently. I'd be surprised if any professional in a similar situation didn't feel the same way. Your responsibility is to perfecting your craft."

That might sound like a prepared statement circulated by the players association for use by guys in their walk years. But after watching Ichiro spend his final Sunday in Japan sprinting up 2,508 steps, it's also hard not to consider him sincere in his delivery.

He races up steps that are a hodgepodge of heights and widths, challenging the balance and pacing of anyone who ventures up them.

But even as he dashes up, Ichiro never wobbles or teeters. In typical fashion, he ascends the staircase fluidly, gracefully and, most impressively, quickly.

He's exercising the spring in his hamstrings that propels him up those steps with the same ease that enables him to crisscross Safeco Field's spacious center field, and to be efficient in that all-important first jump when advancing the bases. He also likes the way the drill forces his body to naturally find its center of balance throughout the uneven climb.

And both the day before and after, he took more than 100 swings off live pitching, threw countless balls from center to home with flair, and ran the bases with purpose.

It's the kind of meticulous training that will allow him to show up to the Mariners' spring camp this week in his usual game-ready condition. If anyone has ever perfected the art of blocking out the peripheral stuff to focus on preparing to play, it's Ichiro.

But there is also no denying Ichiro's contract expires at the end of the season. If a new deal isn't reached by the end of spring training, will a guy who is so focused on his game insist negotiations be suspended so as not to create a possible distraction during the season?

"Again, that's why I have an agent," he repeats stoically. "So I don't see it becoming a distraction. As far as I know, we haven't said we won't discuss the situation during the season."

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Then there's the question of whether three consecutive last-place finishes have soured him on the Mariners to the point where he's interested in listening to what a proven winner has to offer.

He avoided playing his hand on that one with his trademark poker-faced stare. But it's tough to imagine he doesn't at least have a fondness for Seattle when he proudly displays his affiliation to the club by wearing his Mariners uniform during his workouts here. Even with no one looking on in the empty stadium, no detail is compromised, from the neatly raised white pants to the crisp, Mariners navy turtleneck undershirt.

Then there are the spikes. It's hard not to take Ichiro's focus seriously when he's admiring his new footwear. More than a fashion statement, they're a declaration of precision.

He has always prided himself in demanding the game's lightest spikes. But after years of gradually reducing the weight of his size 10-½ spikes, he finally hit what he felt was the limit in 2003, when his spikes dropped to a little less than 10 ounces per shoe, where they have stayed until now.

By comparison, the average position player's spikes are more than 14 ounces. His 2007 model has been reduced even further, to 9.17 ounces, without compromising the equally important durability.

Those lighter spikes will help him cover more ground as he comes to camp for the first time as the Mariners' center fielder. He's energized by the thought of returning to the position he manned regularly in Japan from the middle of the 1995 season.

"Unconfined movement, that's what appeals to me," he explains. "I love the freedom center field gives me to run. I'm exaggerating a bit, but if there's a ball hit to left field or right field that I think is catchable for me, it's mine if I want it. The center fielder has that right to take charge.

"When I'm playing right field, I have to be cognizant of the center fielder and what he wants to do, but when I'm in center, I'm in the leadership role to call the other guys off if my judgment says that's the best play."

Indeed, in a lighthearted, public moment over the offseason, Ichiro was on a national television show in Japan when he was asked to draw a map of what he considers his territory in center field. His rendition left only a tiny sliver of grass along the foul lines for the corner outfielders and he ceded just a narrow patch behind second and short to the infielders.

Everyone got a good laugh, and beyond revealing his enthusiasm for the move, he showed how there really is a lot to be upbeat about when the focus is on playing.

Ichiro is in a leadership role this season, and not just in the outfield, by virtue of his seniority. He is the last Mariner to remain continuously since the 116-win season of 2001.

During his workout, when he is asked what else he likes about center field, Ichiro makes an interesting observation about how he enjoys the view looking in from there. With shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt's strong arm and acrobatics, and catcher Kenji Johjima's toughness in blocking the plate, Ichiro is eager to line up behind them.

"Betancourt is one of the key, young players to our attack," he says. "A strong solid line right up the middle is essential for any team to be good, and when you project out from Joh behind the plate through Betancourt at short to what I hope to provide in center, you can't be anything but upbeat about our potential."

Considering there's also the challenge of a seventh consecutive 200-hit season to tie Wade Boggs' modern record, and the early season milestone of becoming the seventh player in Mariners history to play in 1,000 games, simply staying focused on baseball seems to have a nice upside.

Brad Lefton is a St. Louis-based journalist who has documented Ichiro's seasons in Major League Baseball for Japanese TV. Lefton has spent his career covering baseball in Japan and America and interviewed Ichiro in Japanese for this article.

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