Ichiro gets a hero's welcome in Tokyo opener

TOKYO -- 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 Wednesday at the Tokyo Dome chanted his name as he took his place in right field. The scene is likely to be repeated Thursday when the teams finish their Tokyo series. That game might also mark an end for Ichiro, 45, although no one is saying.

"I thought it was amazing to see the crowd come out here for him," Mariners second baseman Dee Gordon said after a 9-7 win. "This whole situation is pretty much for him and he deserves it."

Ichiro, who was born and raised in Japan, provided his usual flair early, catching a ball behind his back during batting practice.

Cameras flashed and chants echoed all around the ballpark when the future Hall of Famer came to bat in the third inning. With fans eager to see him deliver, he popped out 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 of the inning, was pulled from the game. He trotted off to another huge ovation and was hugged by teammates in the infield.

"The fans in Japan probably aren't used to the reception I got from my teammates, but it's not that unusual in the majors,'' Ichiro said.

Mariners manager Scott Servais said Ichiro will play in Thursday's final game of the series but that there is no guarantee he'll start.

"We certainly want to give him an opportunity to go out and play, but we also want to get some other guys in the game," Servais said. "I understand everybody wants to see him go all nine innings. We're trying to do the best thing for the team, and Ichiro understands."

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.

Half a dozen fans lined up just behind the third-base dugout and held up cards spelling out Ichiro's name in Japanese. Another fan wore a shirt that read: "Ichiro I believe -- 3,090."

A's manager Bob Melvin knows Ichiro from their days with the Mariners.

"Every time he comes to the plate, every time the ball is hit to him, there's going to be a lot of moments," Melvin said. "A lot is going on that circulates around him.''

Ichiro went into the game hitting ninth -- not exactly a vote of confidence -- despite having 3,089 hits since joining Seattle from Japan 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 of his career, 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 has had only two hits in 31 at-bats in spring training, including two exhibition games in Japan.

"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 might not last long. Neither the Mariners nor Ichiro is saying what happens next. But it seems likely he will not be on the Mariners' 25-man roster when the regular season resumes March 28 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 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 said they are just fans on nights like this.

"There will be certain periods in the game here when you sit back and reflect a 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 goes down in history as one of the all-time great players."