It’s been over two years, and Amy Franz still has no idea how Ichiro Suzuki knew it was her birthday. That particular June 11, in 2014, Franz, a longtime Mariners fan, was sitting in right field, as usual, at Seattle’s Safeco Field. She was watching for foul balls during batting practice while her husband, Joe, sat next to her using a camera she’d received as a gift.
Ichiro, then with the New York Yankees, was practicing in center field when they noticed him pull out a sharpie and begin scribbling on a baseball.
“Then he starts walking out towards right,” Franz said during a recent telephone conversation with The Japan Times. “I hadn’t talked to him before (during that season). He threw the ball up to me and it said, ‘To Amy: Happy B.D.’ He signed ‘Ichiro’ on the sweetspot and the other side has the date.
“That’s a pretty cool moment, that he even knew it was my birthday, which was weird. I was wearing a ‘happy birthday’ sash, but he would’ve had to have seen that from all the way on the other side of the field. I’m not sure how he knew, but he did.”
Franz has been one of Ichiro’s biggest fans for years, and as his gesture showed, the relationship isn’t one-sided. So as Ichiro, now with the Miami Marlins, approaches his 3,000th MLB hit, Franz is counting down to the milestone right along with him.
Ichiro was in the Mariners outfield from 2001 until he was traded to the Yankees during the 2012 season. Franz was one of his most recognizable supporters during that run because of the “Ichimeter,” a black and neon green sign she carried to games and displayed from her seats in the front row in right field — right behind Ichiro’s defensive position.
When Ichiro got a hit, Franz would update the number on the front of the Ichimeter to reflect his total in a given season.
Franz, who would also carry the sign to some away games, has used the Ichimeter to count down to numerous milestones in Ichiro’s career. It became such a common sight during broadcasts in Japan and the U.S. that Franz became known as the “Ichimeter Lady.”
The idea came late in the 2004 season, when Ichiro was challenging George Sisler’s single-season hits record of 257, which had stood since 1920. Ichiro would eventually shatter the mark with 262 hits.
The first Ichimeter was born on a softball field. Franz used to play in a weekly league and stopped by a store and bought supplies on the way to a game one afternoon.
She and her children, Kyle (now 26) and Lisa (23), worked on the sign between innings and while her team was batting. The finishing touches were put on outside Safeco as the family waited to go in for a game.
“I just thought it would be fun to make a memento of the accomplishment,” she said. “I never knew it would turn into what it has become.”
That Ichimeter is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jeff Idelson, then vice president of the Hall and currently the president, sought out Franz during a game to ask if she would send the sign to Cooperstown, New York, to be displayed alongside other mementos of the season.
Soon, she decided to make another.
“Then I’m like, now he’s had 200-plus hit seasons already for however many years at that point, I think I want to keep track of his hits every season just for fun,” she said. “I think the next season was when it really took off internationally with NHK starting to really dial in on it. I kept doing it and people from Japan started to approach me saying ‘we’ve seen this on TV.’ The more and more games that passed, they said ‘this is very famous in Japan,’ and that’s when it really took effect.”
Ichiro also noticed and in 2012, the year he left Seattle, he sent Franz a thank-you note and a few gifts.
“The day he was traded (July 23, 2012, with the Yankees in Seattle as fate would have it), he came out to the outfield and he thanked me for cheering for him for all those years and he jumped up and gave me a high five,” she recalled.
“It was November when I received the note with the spikes and the bat. It’s a really hard feeling to describe. I guess it’s kind of a special feeling that he chose to give me a gift. I would’ve never expected anything like that from a baseball player.”
Franz is a longtime Mariners fan. She and her family have had season tickets since the 1996 season. Before Ichiro came along, her favorite player was Jay Buhner, a former All-Star who is in the team’s Hall of Fame. Before the Ichimeter, many fans got a kick out of her “Bad to the Bone” sign for Buhner, a play on the nickname, “Bone,” that had followed him since high school.
Franz is usually clad in Mariners gear, even when not at Safeco. When she’s at games, she’s rarely without her hat, which is designed to look like a baseball and covered in sequins. She wears it to every game, adorning it with a small crown on days ace Felix Hernandez, “King Felix,” is pitching. “My husband calls it my signature hat,” she said.
For her, and other Mariners fans, Ichiro is a special player.
“He’s very true to the sport,” she said “He’s always focused and he’s very respectful of the game. You don’t see him out there throwing tantrums. If he messes up, he just goes on like ‘I’m going to do better next time.’ He’s peaceful, but he’s so focused and dedicated to the sport.”
She promised many fans that she would continue to track Ichiro’s hits even if he were traded away, never thinking it would happen, and has kept her word through social media.
In 2013, she flew to New York to witness his 4,000th career hit (between NPB and MLB) and updated the Ichimeter accordingly from the stands in left field. Only a family matter kept her from being in the crowd when Ichiro recorded the 4,257th hit of his career. “We (she and her husband) watched it on the couch,” Franz said. She plans to be there, wherever “there” is, when Ichiro records his 3,000th MLB hit.
“Even if I didn’t make a promise, I still think I would’ve done it, because of the amount of years and the relationship I formed with him,” she said.