Ichiro's journey to 3,000 a special ride for die-hard fans

Ichiro's journey to 3,000 a special ride for die-hard fans

From all regions of the world, lifelong fans of Ichiro Suzuki have flocked to witness history in his chase for 3,000 career hits. On Sunday at Coors Field, that milestone was realized, and an international baseball icon tipped his helmet.

One super fan in attendance was Amy Franz. A longtime Mariners season-ticket holder, she's flown to each city Ichiro and the Marlins have played in since the All-Star break. Just in the past 30 days, she's been to St. Louis, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago and now Colorado.

But all the hassle, flying and money was worth it Sunday.

"Words cannot describe it," Franz said after watching from behind the third-base dugout as Ichiro raced into third for a stand-up triple for his 3,000th hit. "I'm still shaking."

Franz is best known for creating the "Ichimeter" sign that displayed Ichiro's single-season record 262 hits set in 2004, which now hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame. During Sunday's game after Ichiro's triple, Franz changed the numbers on her current four-digit sign. It now reads 3-0-0-0.

Not all fans are as dedicated as Franz. But many have traveled farther distances to see Ichiro.

Akihiro Kado, who goes by Aki, flew the 7,500 miles to Miami from his hometown of Tokyo for the Marlins' last homestand in hopes of seeing hit No. 3,000. He is one of the numerous Japanese fans that fill the seats wherever and whenever Ichiro plays, cheering while also displaying signs and Japanese flags.

Aki carries a hit counter sign made by his two daughters that reads "Ichi-road" adjacent to an American flag and the logos of each of the three teams Ichiro has played for. Ichiro even autographed it in New York after notching 4,000 combined career hits between the U.S. and Japan in 2013.

"Hopefully today is the day," the 43-year-old Aki said at the game against the Cardinals on July 29, before chuckling, "[I'm] just a little tired."

Why would one drop everything and fly across the Pacific Ocean to see the world-renowned superstar play? The answer is simple to Aki, who's been a fan of Ichiro for 16 years.

"Almost every person respects him," he said.

It's true. From Tokyo to Seattle to the local Marlins fans, people love Ichiro. One such local fan is Jay Marcus, a season-ticket holder since 2004 who has gained popularity for his orange hit countdown T-shirts seen at games in Marlins Park this year.

Ichiro fans countdown to 3,000

Marcus sells the shirts online, but he gives them away at games. The craze started with just him and his son, Jack, but has expanded to a small sea of orange behind the third-base dugout.

"For me, this was baseball heaven," the 61-year-old Marcus said of Miami signing Ichiro last year. "I loved every minute of him last year. This year is special. This is big time."

Indeed, 3,000 hits is special. Ichiro is special.

Franz on Ichi-Meter origins

While millions of fans from all over the world have watched him play, only a few can say they've ever had a personal connection with him. One of those is Franz.

Before Ichiro's bobblehead day on one home game in May this year, Ichiro found Franz down the third-base line and paid her a visit. The two have known each other for years dating back to their Seattle days.

"What are you doing here?" she recalls Ichiro asking her.

"I had to come get my bobblehead. Why'd you have to get four hits yesterday before I got here?" Franz asked him. Ichiro laughed.

When Franz left Miami a few days later, she said she happened to see him after the game walking out of the stadium.

"Hey, I'll see you for 3,000," she told him.

And on Sunday, she kept that promise.

Patrick Pinak is a reporter for MLB.com based in Miami. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.