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SHINJO BECOMING FAVORITE AMONG FANS IN NEW YORK

SHINJO BECOMING FAVORITE AMONG FANS IN NEW YORK

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There's a new fan favorite at Shea Stadium.

Tsuyoshi Shinjo and his bright orange wrist bands, unique hop before catching fly balls, bat-tossing after home runs and bows to the crowd have been a hit so far with the Mets and their crowds.``I knew he was a good outfielder, but I didn't realize he was as talented as I've seen,' All-Star catcher Mike Piazza said.

``He has speed. Speed never goes into a slump. When he's swinging the bat well, he's able to do some things on the bases. And obviously he has some wiry type of power. He's going to be able to do some things for us.'

With all the focus on Japanese stars Ichiro Suzuki and Hideo Nomo early this season, Shinjo's accomplishments haven't been as noticed - except in New York where the applause for him rivals that of Piazza.

The seven-time Gold Glove outfielder from Japan gets some of his biggest cheers on the most routine of catches. Nearly every time a fly ball goes toward Shinjo, the crowd starts clapping in anticipation of the Shinjo's crow hop before the catch.

He says he does it to steady his eyes as he catches the ball at eye level. He also has an explanation for why he tosses his bat aside after hitting home runs.

``The reason why I threw the bat right after my home run is I've got a lot of pine tar,' Shinjo said. ``So it's kind of my habit. It's nothing to show anybody up. It's nothing like that.'

But some of his mannerisms - he wiped off home plate as is Japanese custom after his first spring training homer - could rub opponents the wrong way.

``That's ridiculous,' said Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who spent a year in Japan. ``He's got flair. No one gets on Andruw Jones for the way he catches fly balls. That's his signature thing.'

There's more than flair to Shinjo's game. He dropped a perfect sacrifice bunt to set up the winning run Thursday against Atlanta, runs out every ball and backs up his fellow outfielders.

Injuries to Benny Agbayani and Timo Perez mean Shinjo will get even more chances to play.

Off the field, Shinjo's all style. Before going to the podium for a news conference following the Mets' home opener, Shinjo was spotted fixing his hair in the mirror.

He also has his own Web site (www.shinjyo5.net - the English version goes up April 30) with 18 photos in a gallery - only six of them have Shinjo in uniform. In the others, he's modeling clothes, walking the street or talking on the phone.

He was such a superstar in Japan, where he has his own line of merchandise and fan club, that he felt too confined. He turned down a reported $12 million, five-year contract there to sign a $700,000 deal with the Mets.

He's already getting recognized in New York, not that he's unhappy about it.

``First of all I thought nobody knew me here in New York,' he said, ``but everybody called me Shinjo and I'm very happy.'

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A-ROD's RETURN:\ Alex Rodriguez has the date circled on his calendar, as do his Texas teammates. Monday night, he makes his return to Safeco Field in Seattle.

Cheered when he played for the Mariners, the fans might give A-Rod a different reaction.

``I expect them to be a little irritated at him,' Rangers pitcher Kenny Rogers said. ``They are probably going to be more irritated because they lost one of the best players in the game, more than they are at him.

``I think they know they had a great ballplayer and he didn't stay. You can't blame him. Nobody can blame him for leaving at all,' he said. ``It will be awkward for him I think, but for all of us, we'll try and take the pressure off of him, go about our business and carry him through that series.'

Rodriguez, who faced the Mariners last week when they visited Texas, left Seattle to sign with the Rangers for 10 years and $252 million. He's not sure what kind of reception he'll receive.

``I don't have any preconceived notions, I don't know what's going to happen,' he said.

``I think it's going to be mixed. I know some people are mad or a little upset or hurt. I just really appreciate the way they treated me for such a long time,' he said.

Seattle outfielder Jay Buhner also expects Rodriguez to be cheered and booed.

``He was a very instrumental part of the team to save baseball in Seattle. I hope they remember that and what he did,' he said. ``At the same time, you never know. The fans can be fickle. No doubt about it.'

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GOING GLOBAL:\ Could Bobby Abreu, Omar Daal and the Philadelphia Phillies be the next team to be part of baseball's effort to cross international borders?

After the majors started the regular season in Mexico, Japan and Puerto Rico in the last three years, there's talk that Venezuela could be the next country to play host to an opener.

The Phillies, with Venezuelan-born Tomas Perez, Daal and Abreu on the roster, have heard speculation they might be picked for such a trip. Cleveland and Houston played a two-game exhibition series in Venezuela last month.

Japanese officials originally were interested in playing host to a major league opener next year. But they also want a promise that the start of the 2002 season will not be interrupted by a lockout or strike, and there's no guarantee of that.

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STARGELL STAR:\ The Pirates will wear a patch depicting one of Willie Stargell's stars on their uniforms the rest of the season.

Stargell passed out the black stars with a gold ``S' to teammates during the Pirates' 1979 World Series championship season.

The patch will be on the left side of the chest of the Pirates' home and away uniforms.

Stargell died Monday at age 61 after a long illness.

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