Seattle Mariners

Ichiro’s return ignites Mariners fans, means return of thought-lost “Ichimeter”

Ichiro's back in Seattle

Giddy fans talk about Ichiro Suzuki's return and what he means to the Mariners.
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Giddy fans talk about Ichiro Suzuki's return and what he means to the Mariners.

You knew something was up when the black and neon-green sign was back, sitting above the wall in right field.

It was the “Ichimeter,” with the number sitting at “4,358” – as in Ichiro Suzuki’s total hits as a professional, which dates back to his nine years in Japan before coming to the Mariners in 2001.

That sign was thought to be sitting among cobwebs and dust when Ichiro left the Mariners in a trade to the Yankees in 2012, ending his 12-year run with the Mariners.

So they thought.

Then Amy Franz sat in her usual right-field seat Thursday night as the name was announced among the starting lineup over the loudspeakers – Ichiro Suzuki.

“Now it will be here all the time,” Franz said, with the countdown to the starting lineups just seconds away.

It was hard to tell if Ichiro or 13-year Mariner Felix Hernandez received louder applause during the opening ceremony.

Ichiro approached the plate for the first time in the bottom of the third inning, and he seemed to have a bit of a smile on his face as fans started chanting “Ichi-Ro! Ichi-Ro.” He grounded out to first base.

But for all Ichiro has accomplished in his 17-year MLB career the applause was certainly deserving, even if he’s now batting last in the Mariners’ lineup and playing left field instead of his once-magical bat leading off the lineup and starting in right field.

So Franz didn’t get to sit right behind Ichiro on Thursday, with “Ichi-Meter” written across the back of her jersey. The number on her jersey was 308 – signifying the 3,080 hits he has as a major leaguer in the 44-year-old career.

She’s been a Mariners season-ticket holder since 1996, before Ichiro got here.

“I was expecting to see him back in MLB this season, I just didn’t know where,” Franz said. “But I was over the moon to see him back here. I’m so excited. It’s kind of like seeing an old friend for the first time after they had moved away and you never thought you’d see them again. And then they’re back.”

For all the Mariners futility after his first season here – which has snowballed into a 17-year playoff drought since that last 2001 playoff trip – Ichiro carried the club during that time, including his single-season hits record when he had 262 in 2004.

Ichiro paused in front of his old Mariners locker on Wednesday when asked about his return to Seattle.

“The dreams that I have, one of them came true,” Ichiro said through interpreter Allen Turner.

Jane Henderson brought her book to Seattle with loads of Ichiro photos, stats and even a Japanese magazine – one she said she hadn’t actually opened until Thursday – of Ichiro on the cover as a dark-haired teenager.

“My friends and I were just talking that he needed to come back here to finish his career,” said Loretta Wirtz from outside of Safeco Field a few hours before the game. “When I heard he was back I had to look back two or three times just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.

“I couldn’t wait to come back and chant ‘Ichi-RO!’”

Jerritt Miles made sure to wear dust off his Ichiro Mariners jersey from his Tacoma closet.

“It just feels right – to see Mariners colors back on Ichiro,” Miles said. “It seems like he never left. It just feels right at home with him back.”

Ichiro wasn’t even sure he’d be in the Mariners’ starting lineup on Thursday with him recovering from a sore calf during spring training – which limited him to an 0-for-10 spring with five strikeouts.

The Mariners announced Wednesday afternoon that he’d play.

“It’s a Cinderella story,” Josh Ainardi said. “That’s what I’ve wanted for so long.

“He revolutionized the game in Seattle. He came over in 2001, jump-started that 116-win season. He changed the game.”

The last time Ichiro was in a Mariners uniform, Franz was counting up his hits to 3,000. The original Ichi-Meter is now in Cooperstown in the Hall of Fame, but she since made another.

A few months after Ichiro was traded, Franz received a thank-you note and a few gifts, including his bat and cleats. But she still followed him, watching him in New York in 2013 to witness his 4,000th professional hit and she was here last year when Ichiro returned to Safeco Field for the first time as a member of the Marlins.

But she far prefers Ichiro in a Mariners uniform.

“I’m super stoked,” Franz said, with her husband seated to her left. “I have no words for it. I’m just over the moon.”

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677, @tjcotterill