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Originally published July 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 19, 2007 at 4:09 PM

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Ichiro to stay a Mariner

Former Seattle pitcher Gil Meche tried Monday to envision the Mariners without Ichiro. He couldn't. "He's the guy in Seattle," said Meche...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Big bats, big paychecks

Will Ichiro's new contract have him joining the $20 million club? Three baseball players are making more than $20 million in the 2007 season, according to the USA Today baseball salaries online database.

(Figures have been rounded off.)

$23.4M

Jason Giambi, Yankees

$22.7M

Alex Rodriguez, Yankees

$21.6M

Derek Jeter, Yankees

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SAN FRANCISCO — Former Seattle pitcher Gil Meche tried Monday to envision the Mariners without Ichiro. He couldn't.

"He's the guy in Seattle," said Meche, who signed with Kansas City last winter. "With their ownership being from Japan, I can't imagine him leaving."

Meche's instincts were dead-on: Ichiro's not going anywhere. The Mariners are on the verge of signing the superstar center fielder from Japan to a five-year contract extension that reportedly will approach, or perhaps even exceed, $100 million.

The contract, which would lock up Ichiro through 2012, is not yet signed but is said to be imminent, with sources indicating the sides have reached an agreement in principle on the parameters of the deal.

A Mariners spokesman declined comment Tuesday.

The deal could be announced either Thursday or Friday.

Ichiro, approached by reporters in the American League clubhouse before the All-Star Game on Tuesday, fended off questions about an impending deal.

He said, "I haven't signed any contract," but never denied he would do so soon.

"As I said [Monday], I'm going to sign a contract sometime and play somewhere in the world," the 33-year-old said. "This is the All-Stars right now. ... I don't understand why the answers to these questions need to be given now."

Asked if it was important to keep his contract details private for the time being, Ichiro replied, "It's important, but at the same time, in this business, there are things you can't say or are allowed to say. At the same time, I don't want to lie, either."

The timing of the prospective new deal — less than two weeks after Mike Hargrove's resignation as manager on July 1 — is sure to fuel more speculation Ichiro somehow had a hand in his departure.

Yet there are strong indications talks between the Mariners and Ichiro's agent, Tony Attanasio, have been going on for several weeks and that an agreement was close even before Hargrove left.

Hargrove adamantly denied Tuesday Ichiro had any factor in his resignation.

Big bats, big paychecks

Will Ichiro's new contract have him joining the $20 million club? Three baseball players are making more than $20 million in the 2007 season, according to the USA Today baseball salaries online database.

(Figures have been rounded off.)

$23.4M

Jason Giambi, Yankees

$22.7M

Alex Rodriguez, Yankees

$21.6M

Derek Jeter, Yankees

"It had absolutely nothing to do with me and Ichiro," he said. "I'll tell you what: If it came down to that, they would have had to fire me. If it came down to me or Ichiro, I would have said, 'OK, fire me.' I wouldn't have resigned."

Hargrove reiterated the reasons he gave at his news conference were accurate.

"I was not forced out," he said. "It was not 'Ichiro or me.' Not once was that talked about. I can't make people believe. They're going to believe what they want. If it comes down to an implied conspiracy or the truth, you know which way people are going to go."

Hargrove said retaining Ichiro will be "a tremendous thing for the Mariners and their fans. He's a very good complement to a very good team. I'm extremely happy for Ichiro and the Mariners. He's one of the great players in the game."

Seattle teammate J.J. Putz, also in San Francisco for the All-Star Game, was ecstatic when he heard from reporters Ichiro was close to signing.

"If he indeed signed back, I'm pumped," Putz said. "Because he's what gets us started from the first pitch. I guarantee that if you look at the numbers of the times he's on base in the first inning and we score, it's got to be pretty good we win that game."

When Ichiro reported to camp this year, he expressed a willingness to explore free agency after the season. Asked if that issue hung over the Mariners during the first half, Putz replied, "I don't think so. He just doesn't talk about it. He doesn't want to talk about it."

There's no question that Ichiro has a strong relationship with new manager John McLaren, who was Lou Piniella's bench coach when Ichiro joined the Mariners in 2001.

Ichiro also has been buoyed by the team's play in the first half.

On Monday, Ichiro said the Mariners' strong first half — a 49-36 record that left them 2-½ games behind the Angels in the American League West — had "definitely influenced" his decision. He praised the talent on the club and said they had shed the losing culture that developed from three straight last-place finishes.

"I don't see a speck of that kind of mentality with this team we have right now," Ichiro said.

Ichiro signed a four-year, $41 million contract before the 2004 season that will pay him $11 million this season. He made his seventh straight All-Star appearance and his sixth start Tuesday.

Ichiro is a two-time batting champion and was the American League Most Valuable Player in 2001, his first year after coming over from Japan. The Mariners paid a $13.1 million posting fee to his Japanese team, the Orix BlueWave, for the rights to Ichiro, then signed him to a three-year, $14 million contract.

In 2004, Ichiro set a major-league record with 262 hits. He is having another strong season in 2007, reaching the All-Star break with a .359 average, 61 runs, 128 hits, 39 runs batted in and 23 stolen bases in 25 attempts.

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

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