A Japanese hero, Ichiro surpasses Rose’s hits in front of fans

SAN DIEGO — By the time Miami Marlins right fielder Ichiro Suzuki glided up to the Petco Park plate in the top of the ninth inning of an eventual 6-3 loss to the San Diego Padres, controversy and a little bitterness gave way to class, appreciation and adulation.

Suzuki, who had legged out a first inning infield single for his 2978th Major League hit to go along with 1,278 hits with the Nippon Baseball League’s Orix Blue Wave to give him a combined total of 4,256 — the same number that Pete Rose accumulated as MLB’s all-time hit leader — was given a warm ovation by fans from both teams.

About 90 minutes prior to the game as Suzuki stretched in the outfield, a legion of both Japanese and American fans stood by in hopes of interacting with their hero. Each seemingly had their own recollection of the only player who has his first name stitched on his back.

While his wife Ayako and 9-year-old son Taiga were enjoying Legoland, Kobe, Japan native Koki Hikami and his 5-year-old son Taiyo were among the group.

Hikami began rooting for Suzuki’s Nippon Baseball League team the Orix Blue Wave (now Orix Buffaloes) shortly after his house was damaged by the Great Hanshin Earthquake (also known as the Kobe Earthquake) in 1995.

“I was in high school and it was a difficult time,” Hikami said. “But then Ichiro came along and brought a lot of excitement to Kobe. They won the (Japan League) Series in 1996. Ever since then, I have been a fan. So it’s great to see him come here while he is still doing so great.”

Standing nearby was Toshiko “Toko” Tani, a Los Angeles resident from Osaka who was also a fan of Suzuki’s when he played for Orix. “It’s great that he is getting recognition, but that’s the second reason why I came,” she said.

“The first reason is that he is a really exciting player.”

Yasushi “Josh” Kikuchi, a Los Angeles-based writer, said that despite playing in the United States since 2001, Suzuki remains beloved in his native country. While pointing out the 50 regular reporters from Japan behind him, he explained that the national television network NHK has been airing the Marlins games live.

Former Fukuoka resident Shoko Ueno, who attended the game with her boyfriend Mark Pearson, opined on the revered ballplayer’s continued appeal.

“He is so focused on his goals and was willing to go far away to make his dreams come true; (it’s) something that is not the traditional Japanese mindset, and I think that’s why people, especially men, admire him so much,” Ueno said.

This writer has followed the wondrous player as both a reporter and a fan since Suzuki’s arrival to the United States in 2001. While witnessing Ichiro perform many feats, including an electrifying, MVP-earning inside-the-park home run at the 2007 All-Star game at San Francisco’s AT&T Park and his game-winning hit at Dodger Stadium to lead Japan to a 5-3 championship game victory over South Korea in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, my favorite memory occurred when Ichiro was in the field.

In an October game that was originally scheduled for the night after 9/11, Ichiro impossibly ran down a deep ball and caught a sure game-winning two-run double off the bat of Darin Erstad to preserve a 4-3 win a few feet away from me causing me to burst with tears of joy.

Those feelings returned when he ripped a double into the right field corner off of reliever Fernando Rodney in the ninth inning to accumulate 4,257 professional hits to pass Rose’s MLB figure while the fans, his teammates, the media and even opposing players alike gave Ichiro his proper due.

As the normally stoic Suzuki uncharacteristically took several seconds to acknowledge the fans, behind him out beyond the center field fence loomed the giant statue of Tony Gwynn, the Padres Hall of Fame player who had amassed 3,141 hits over a 20-year career. It was serendipitously a day shy of the two-year anniversary of the beloved San Diegan’s passing, making Petco Park an apropos setting for Ichiro’s historical feat.

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