TOKYO (AP) — Talk about a serious home-field advantage.
Ichiro Suzuki had it on a night to celebrate all things Ichiro — “Ichiromania” in other words — as he started for the Seattle Mariners against the Oakland Athletics in MLB’s opening game of the season.
About 45,000 voices in a sellout crowd on Wednesday at the Tokyo Dome chanted his name as he took his place in right field. The scene is likely to be repeated on Thursday when the teams finish their Tokyo series. That game may also mark and end for the 45-year-old Ichiro, though no one is saying.
Cameras flashed and chants echoed all around the ballpark when Ichiro came to bat in the third inning. But with fans eager to see him deliver, he popped up with a runner on second base.
He worked a walk in his second at-bat in the fourth and, after taking his place in the outfield for the bottom half, was pulled from the game. He trotted off to another huge ovation and was hugged by teammates in the infield.
Ichiro tipped his hat to the A’s dugout and then found a spot on the Seattle bench. The Mariners went on to win, 9-7.
Hundreds wore Ichiro jerseys — of different eras and colors — emblazoned with No. 51, and a military band played a Sousa march in the pregame ceremonies.
A half-dozen fans lined up just behind the third-base dugout and held up cards spelling out his name in Japanese. Another wore a shirt that read: “Ichiro I believe — 3,090.”
Ichiro went into the game hitting ninth — not exactly a vote of confidence — despite having 3,089 hits since joining Seattle in 2001.
Another fan was keeping count with his sign: “Ichi-Meter, 3,089.”
And one sign had the clearest message of all: “We Love You Ichiro.”
Japanese fans are hoping it’s not the end, but they know it’s likely. They also thought that when Ichiro played here in 2012 with the Mariners — also against the Athletics — and had four hits in one game.
He’s had only 2 hits in 31 at-bats in spring training, including two exhibition games in Japan — perhaps the worst hitter anywhere this spring.
“Seven years ago it appeared he had played for the last time in Japan,” Fumihiro Fujisawa, head of the Japanese Association of Baseball Research, told The Associated Press. “I don’t think anybody believed he would be active now.”
It may not last long. Neither the Mariners nor Ichiro are saying that happens next. But it seems likely he will not be on the Mariners 25-man roster when the regular season resumes with a four-game series in Seattle against the Boston Red Sox.
He could be around, however, for two games against the San Diego Padres to end spring training in Seattle.
Japanese pitcher Yusei Kikuchi will make his major league debut on Thursday for the Mariners. It’s his beginning and it could be Ichiro’s end.
“Japanese fans secretly think that first game for Kikuchi might be the last one for Ichiro,” Fujisawa said. “We are afraid of that.”
Both managers — Bob Melvin with the A’s and Scott Servais — said they are just fans on nights like this.
“There will be certain periods in the game here when you sit back and reflect and little bit, and certainly just watch,” Melvin said.
Added Servais: “It’s exciting, it’s fun for our team, it’s fun for myself. What Ichiro has done is unbelievable. He’s goes down in history as one of the all-time great players.”