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M's mission: Suzuki talks may drag on for a while

SEATTLE -- Ichiro Suzuki's future has become the most
important issue for the issue-overloaded Seattle Mariners.

And it may be around awhile.

The six-time All-Star will make $11 million in the final season
of a $44 million, four-year deal. A six-time Gold Glove outfielder,
Suzuki is eligible to become a free agent after the World Series.

Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi would like to work out an
extension with Suzuki's agent, Tony Attanasio. Just not necessarily
tomorrow. Or even before the season begins April 2.

"It's a top priority," Bavasi said Wednesday. "But the timing
is not that important. Whatever he and Tony are comfortable with.
And whatever our ownership is comfortable with."

So the potentially difficult negotiations could drag on through the
summer.

"I think it should be an issue," Bavasi said. "But -- I don't
know if you want to believe me -- but [urgency] is not going to be
an issue here."

Suzuki is in Japan working out, preparing to report to spring
training in Peoria, Ariz., on Feb. 19 for his annual physical. He's
also apparently waiting on a Mariners contract proposal. Attanasio
did not immediately return a message left at his San Diego office.

Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said he exchanged "positive"
e-mails with Suzuki this month in which the star expressed
excitement for this season.

Hargrove reiterated Wednesday that Suzuki will be in center
field this season, for the first time regularly. Newly signed Jose Guillen, coming off ligament-replacement surgery in his throwing
arm, will be in Suzuki's former spot of right field.

When team chairman Howard Lincoln was last asked publicly about
retaining Suzuki, at the end of last season, the CEO said:
"Obviously, Ichiro is a very important part of this organization
and he's been here a number of years and I think very highly of
him. So I guess the only thing I can say is, stay tuned."

Keeping Suzuki with the only major league team he's known since
Seattle won bidding for his services from Orix of Japan's Pacific
League in late 2000 won't be as simple as Lincoln telling Bavasi
what to offer and when.

Lincoln was a lawyer and chairman of Nintendo before he retired
in 2000 to run the Mariners for Japanese billionaire Hiroshi
Yamauchi. The Nintendo company mogul and former Mariners owner sold
his shares of the team three years ago but remains its chief, to
whom Lincoln reports regularly.

Yamauchi will likely have final say on what the Mariners offer
their most important and recognizable player.

"The Japanese ownership is Nintendo and I have been part of
Nintendo for 25 years, so I keep Nintendo advised to what is going
on," Lincoln said, when asked how much Yamauchi will be involved
in negotiations on extending Suzuki's contract. "They are
certainly very interested because the games are broadcast back to
Japan. We have many Japanese fans."

To that end, the Mariners hope to appeal to their star's
cultural ties to Asia. It sure beats the alternative of trying to
outspend the Yankees in free agency next winter.

"He's a special player," Bavasi said. "But I also think
Seattle's a special place for him. He means a lot to us."