Greg Cote

Ichiro is Japan’s icon, but Miami gets his final chapter and chase for 3,000

Miami Marlins' Ichiro Suzuki follows through on a double during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Sun., July 17, 2016, in St. Louis.
Miami Marlins' Ichiro Suzuki follows through on a double during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Sun., July 17, 2016, in St. Louis. AP

There are almost 7,500 miles separating Tokyo and Miami. The bridge is Ichiro. The language is baseball. There and here, 3,000 hits is a riveting milestone, and the man chasing it makes the world feel a little bit smaller.

In Japan, Ichiro is a national hero, a treasure. In South Florida, he is adopted, borrowed. There and here, though, the cheering will sound the same in a few more days, in a few more hits.

So close now, Ichiro’s three base hits on Sunday put him at 2,994 for his 16-year Major League Baseball career entering Monday night’s game in Philadelphia, which he did not start. The only question now is whether 3K might come during the next three road games or, more likely, once the Marlins return for a long homestand starting Friday night.

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Selfishly, I hope it happens here. And I hope Marlins Park is filled for the thank you. Because occasions like this — chances to see history happening — are rare treats. They are one of the delights special to being a sports fan. (When was the last time anybody applauded an actor on his 3,000th performance?)

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What Ichiro is about to do we will put in the pantheon of greatest, most significant individual accomplishments we’ve seen achieved in the uniform of South Florida sports. Not greatest season, no. Ichiro is but a fourth outfielder, of course, a role player at age 42. But as milestones go, not much tops achieving 3,000 hits in Major League Baseball.

The mind casts back to Dan Marino’s record-shattering 1984 Dolphins season, to Don Shula setting the mark for most coaching wins and to Pavel Bure’s 58- and 59-goal seasons for the Panthers in 2000-01. It must include LeBron James’ consecutive MVP seasons for the Heat in 2012-13. And it was just last hockey season that the Cats’ Jaromir Jagr — like Ichiro an age-defying marvel we’re lucky to have in his career’s winter — climbed to third on the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring table.

Let’s not parse what’s biggest or best in a room full of great.

Let Ichiro in, that’s all. He will have earned the company.

Him reaching 3K in a Marlins uniform will make him only the 30th player to reach that standard in 140 seasons. And doing it in his 16th MLB season will put Ichiro at that immortal number two years sooner than anybody else. Surely Ichiro will enter Cooperstown someday as a Seattle Mariner, with whom he spent most of his post-Japan career. Miami will have a piece of him, though. The final chapter will be ours. His 3,000th hit will belong to the 305.

It is fun to watch Ichiro work. In the clubhouse before games he is a master of exercise and ritual, the same guy who, when in Little League, wrote the word “concentration” onto his glove. In the batting cage before games he has fun, plays slugger, surprising with his power. He once said, “If I’m allowed to hit .220, I could probably hit 40 home runs.”

In games, he is the craftsman, the slender slicer who swats and slaps baseballs, coaxing and guiding them more than punishing them like Giancarlo Stanton does. The lefty batter deploys his bat as if it were a scalpel.

He is beloved.

You saw and heard the respect in the recent weekend series in St. Louis, where fans applauded him appreciatively. When Ichiro was introduced as a pinch-hitter, the Cardinals pitcher stepped from the mound to give him a moment for the ovation to soak in.

“It was hard to look at them as the enemy,” Ichiro said afterward of the Cardinals, acknowledging the gestures of respect.

Ichiro draws fans of Japanese descent everywhere he plays, including Marlins Park, of course. Some games here, the contingent of Japanese reporters covering him full time outnumbers the other media.

Ichiro at-bats are broadcast live on Japanese TV, sometimes at midnight or 2 a.m. Newspapers there published special sections last month when his combined Japanese and U.S. hit totals surpassed Pete Rose’s MLB total.

(Ichiro’s humor, sometimes lost in translation, showed in his response to Rose downplaying that achievement in a way that diminished Ichiro’s Japanese hits. To Japanese reporters, Ichiro likened Rose to “that guy from the Republicans [Donald Trump] making it fun so people pay attention.”)

Most any utterance by Ichiro is a headline back home. It said an envelope mailed from the U.S. bearing only the address, “Ichiro, Japan,” will find him.

“He is the biggest icon in Japanese sports history,” reporter Masa Niwa of Tokyo-based Sankei Sports, a Japanese-language daily newspaper, told us Monday by phone, on the road with the Marlins in Philly. “He is Babe Ruth. Joe DiMaggio.”

Sumo is as big in Japan as its gargantuan wrestlers. But not as big as Ichiro, who surpassed even the great Japanese home run legend Sadaharu Oh in stature because he did what others from Japan had not.

He succeeded in America. In MLB, which all in Japan know is the ultimate in the sport.

“That changed everything,” Niwa said. “All the numbers he’s done in the United States, most Japanese people did not expect that. Everything changed. He was a big star in Japan. Now Ichiro was international. Global. And in Japan he’s the guy everybody knows his name and who he is. The kids, the grandmothers ...”

In a few more days, in a few more hits, that name will be gilded in gold.

They’be chanting it in Tokyo and Miami in the international language of appreciation.

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