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Seattle engrossed by Ichiro-mania

Fellow All-Stars are even caught up in the hype

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SEATTLE — All day long, all eyes were on Ichiro Suzuki.

And the Seattle sensation played the All-Star role perfectly.

At batting practice, Ivan Rodriguez walked up to the cage to hug Suzuki, and coach Don Zimmer came over to embrace him.

Suzuki's rock-star sunglasses perched on his backward cap, he dug in with his special steel spikes — emblazoned in Mariners colors with "All-Star Game 51" on the heel — and promptly hit the first pitch into the right-field stands.

"This guy is one of the top five players in the world," New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza said.

Earlier, a crush of cameramen, most of them Japanese, surrounded him at a hotel press conference. Beefy security personnel constantly kept ordering everyone to move back.

"It is Ichiro-mania here," Kansas City first baseman Mike Sweeney said. "People walk in and we all just point over there."

The crowd at Safeco Field that cheered his every swing confirmed what every player knew: It's the Year of Ichiro!

Because in an All-Star game full of intriguing subplots, Suzuki was the main reason fans in more than 200 countries are likely to watch Tuesday night.

Not to see what else Roger Clemens can throw in Piazza's direction. Not to hear A-Rod get booed at his old ballpark. Not to enjoy the tributes to Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn, either.

"I'm pretty sure that every TV in Japan will be tuned into the game," NL starter Curt Schilling said.

"One of the things a veteran pitcher told me a long time ago is that as an opposing pitcher, you have the ability to shut up a stadium," he said. "I have the ability to shut up a country for a few minutes."

Schilling will get his chance when Suzuki leads off the bottom of the first inning for the American League.

"My philosophy is, I see the pitch I can handle and I hit it hard," Suzuki said through an interpreter.

His Zenlike approach leads him to observe: "Each hit has its own character."

A seven-time batting champion in Japan, the 27-year-old outfielder leads the majors in hits and is tied for the top in steals.

Suzuki is hitting .347 for the best team in baseball and leads the AL in runs scored with 76.

The rookie was the majors' top votegetter in fan balloting for starting spots in the All-Star game.

"I'm looking forward to seeing Ichiro, because everybody is looking forward to seeing him," Cincinnati first baseman Sean Casey said. "It will be interesting to see him take batting practice and things like that. His style is different. It's stuff you don't see."

Such as the sumo-style squats he does before hitting. Or the rice balls, made by his wife, Yumiko, that he eats prior to games.

Rarely has anyone seen so much buildup for someone in the All-Star game.