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Tuesday, July 10, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mariners

Bonds raises caution sign for Mariners

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Mariners have dominated the first half of the season to historic proportions, and they've practically turned the All-Star Game into a private party.

It stood to reason, therefore, that the hot M's would be a hot topic yesterday when the All-Stars gathered in Seattle for workouts and various press briefings.

Amidst the glowing tributes to their prowess that rang from every corner, however, were some sobering words from Barry Bonds, whose Giants will be the Mariners' first opponents at Safeco Field when they start playing for real again Thursday.

"The best team wins the World Series," Bonds said with a shrug. "Seattle has not won the World Series. They're just playing real good right now. Anyone can be on a streak. I'll never forget 1993 as long as I live. We won 103 games, and I would have bet the house we'd be in the World Series. I'd have lost everything."

Even Bonds put aside his skepticism to join the other pastime yesterday, which was heaping praise upon Ichiro, clearly the game's breakout star of the first half. Bonds first saw the outfielder's promise when he toured Japan with the American All-Star team in 1996.

"He got three or four hits in every game," Bonds said. "If he didn't make the move he did, he could have walked away because of boredom. He was not really fulfilling his potential. He was just playing in the wrong league. He's finally in the league he needs to be in, because he was that much better than them."

The Mariners, of course, have played most of the season like they belonged in a higher league, and their 63-24 record inspired considerable praise - and analysis.

"You could throw an All-Star team out there and be surprised with the numbers they've put up," Angels reliever Troy Percival said. "But after you watched the way they play the game, it's a little less surprising. They play the game the way a small-market team should play the game. They move runners over, they get them in, they don't leave runners on third base with less than two outs, they throw strikes. They do all the small things well, and they probably don't have to."

"I think when they had (Ken) Griffey, A-Rod and Randy Johnson, they had three superstars, but that doesn't necessarily make them a good team," Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney added. "Once they left, the Seattle Mariners really jelled as a team. They don't have three head guys; they have 25 equal guys, and I think that's what makes them a great team."

"You can't replace, necessarily, Hall of Famers, but the way they're doing it is a testament to how important the team game is," said Detroit first baseman Tony Clark. "I don't think it necessarily underscores having a superstar on your ballclub - look at Chicago (with Sammy Sosa) - but as much as anything else, they've got contributions from top to bottom from a lot of different guys."

Oakland's Jason Giambi called the Mariners' first half "mind-boggling" and he all but conceded that the race in the American League West is over. The Mariners have a 19-game lead over the defending champion A's, the biggest lead ever at the All-Star break. No team has ever come back from more than a 15-game deficit.

"What they've done is incredible," Giambi said. "You're already starting to look, `Hey, we've got to chase the wild card.' They'd have to play under .500 ball and we'd have to play, like, .800 ball to catch them.

"With their bullpen and starting pitching, they're going to win a lot of games. That's what makes them so tough. They play their game to a T. They get guys on and drive them in, which is really starting to feed on other guys. Mike Cameron - he's always been a great defensive player, and he's turned into an offensive player. It's really snowballed."

And Giants Manager Dusty Baker knows what a powerful force that can be. "The Mariners probably feel unbeatable, especially in close games," he said. "That's when you know you've got it going on."

Yankees reliever Mike Stanton acknowledged that the Mariners are candidates to break New York's American League record of 114 wins, set in 1998.

"They pretty much can't do anything wrong right now," Stanton said. "Their starting pitching is wonderful, and whenever they falter, their lineup and bullpen picks them up. Whenever their lineup is struggling one night, their pitching picks them up. Their situation is like us in '98. It's a whole lot of fun coming to the park every day knowing you're going to win."

Baker reserved special praise for Edgar Martinez.

"Edgar is a professional, quiet, humble giant," Baker said. "He's one of best right-handed hitters ever seen. I told Lou that when he took the job, and then Edgar immediately got hurt. I said to Lou, `Wait until you see him.' Edgar doesn't showboat. He's old school."

Ichiro has also earned the old-school label in just 3-1/2 months in American ball.

"I don't look at him as a Japanese star coming over to play," Percival said. "I look at him and admire the baseball skills he has. ... He has more power than people think, he's got speed, a great arm, plays great defense and hits for power. I see him as a big-league player, just as I look at the other guys."

Said Bonds: "I think what he's brought to the game, him and (Hideo) Nomo, brings tears to your eyes, because this game is for all nationalities. I can't wait until they bring Chinese players. It's just wonderful these players are here representing this game of baseball."

So far this year, the Mariners have provided the best representation.

"I'm a Ranger, but I love baseball, and I love watching good baseball," said Rodriguez. "When I watch the Mariners, I'm watching great baseball."

Larry Stone can be reached at 206-464-3146 or at lstone@seattletimes.com.

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