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Friday, March 30, 2012

For Kawasaki, new challenge provides fun experience

Staff writer

Munenori Kawasaki had it all in Japan.

News photo
Time to remember: Mariners infielder Munenori Kawasaki (left), seen celebrating with teammate Ichiro Suzuki after Seattle's Opening Day win over the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday, brings enthusiasm and a range of talents to his new club.

He was the star shortstop for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, and the Kagoshima native had made his eighth appearance in the NPB All-Star Game in July of 2011 and helped the Hawks win the Japan Series later that year.

Still, he traded in his superstar status in Japan for a chance — not a guarantee — to make the Seattle Mariners roster as a non-roster invitee to spring training.

Because Kawasaki, with his infectious energy and hustle, made it onto the 25-man Opening Day Roster, some would say his gamble paid off.

Just don't count Kawasaki among them.

"A lot of people around me may say and think that I was taking a big risk," Kawasaki said at Tokyo Dome Thursday. "From my perspective, I look at it as enjoying and wanting to play baseball. The baseball I wanted to play was in the United States, to play for a big league team. I'm just enjoying the game there, enjoying MLB.

"I don't take it as taking a big risk, because I'm doing what I want to do."

Because Seattle will get the chance to reshuffle its roster upon returning to the U.S., as spring training is not officially over, there is a chance Kawasaki could get sent down before April 5, the date the schedule begins in earnest. Many reports indicate he has a decent chance of hanging onto his spot.

Whatever happens, nothing can take away the fact Kawasaki made the Opening Day roster of a major league team. He didn't see any action in the team's first game, a 3-1 win over the Oakland Athletics, but that failed to dampen his enthusiasm.

"I still feel the same, being in the dugout," Kawasaki said. "When I played (with the Hawks) we had members who didn't play as well. But I wanted them to feel like they were a part of the team, a part of the nine guys who are on the field. Because we all fight together. Although I'm sitting here on the bench, I still feel like I'm playing in the game."

When he announced his intentions to head to the U.S., it was on the condition he would be able to play with Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki. Kawasaki has admired Ichiro for years and relished the chance to be his teammate at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

Motivated by the chance to play with Ichiro, Kawasaki did his best to adjust to MLB spring training, and is getting the chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

"To be honest, it's great to be his teammate," Kawasaki said. "You learn so much through him. Preparation, the way he approaches the game, everything. Things that I wasn't able to see, now I'm starting to absorb that, being able to study that and trying to take advantage of that. That's something that I look forward to doing."

Kawasaki may look up to Ichiro, but their demeanors couldn't be more different. Where Ichiro projects a serious, focused air, Kawasaki's personality is more carefree and playful. He's eager to try out the English he's picked up, with a yell if necessary, and his natural energy has rubbed off on his teammates.

"Actually, I'm just being myself," Kawasaki said. "I've always been this energetic, this type of character."

Kawasaki and the Mariners were scheduled to return to the U.S. after Thursday's game. The team will play five spring training games before returning to regular-season action on April 6.

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