Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Long-lost basketball card sparks memories of Ichiro's early fame

by Wayne Graczyk

Miami Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki is about to reach the 3,000-hit mark in Major League Baseball. The 42-year-old Japanese icon is expected to conquer the milestone this week during Miami’s 10-game homestand.

The Marlins are hosting the New York Mets July 22-24, the Philadelphia Phillies July 25-27 and the St. Louis Cardinals July 28-31 at Marlins Park. He should join the club one of those days, becoming the 30th major league player to get to 3,000.

Thinking about Ichiro reminded me of a story involving him — sort of — that began 22 years ago and ended last month.

It was November of 1994, and Ichiro had just completed his breakout season with the Orix BlueWave in Kobe. He had recently turned 21 and ended his first full year in the Pacific League having set a new Japanese baseball record with 210 hits (later surpassed by Matt Murton of the Hanshin Tigers in 2010 and Shogo Akiyama of the Seibu Lions in 2015) while batting .385 and winning his first of seven consecutive PL batting titles.

Following that great season, Ichiro was invited as a guest to various events around the country, and one of them was a two-day NBA official games opening series in Japan. The Los Angeles Clippers played the Portland Trail Blazers at Yokohama Arena on Nov. 4 and 5.

At halftime, media members, as well as Ichiro, retreated to the press room to grab a bite to eat and a soft drink. It was there that Upper Deck, the U.S. sports card maker, had set up a platform and a backdrop in front of a camera. All, including Ichiro, were asked if we would like to pose for a photo while holding a basketball, and Upper Deck would print our personal NBA cards.

Sure, why not?

We heard Ichiro got his card fairly soon afterward, but the remainder of the Japanese and foreign media filled out a form with our name, address, height, weight, birthday, hometown and other information to be listed on the back of the card. They told us they would ship the cards, and it would take about three months for us to receive them in Japan.

The three months passed, and we did not get any cards. Three years passed, and still no cards. In the years that followed, every so often, two or three of us would be sitting in the press box covering a baseball game at Tokyo Dome, and someone would suddenly recall the 1994 photo-taking and realize none of us among the foreign sportswriters had gotten any cards.

“Hey — did you ever get your NBA card from Upper Deck?” one would ask.

“No. I wonder whatever happened to that,” would be the reply. “I guess they forgot about us.”

Now, 22 years later, I got a postcard out of the blue last month from Kazuhiko Shimamoto. He had covered the ’94 NBA games for NHK and posed for his basketball card too. He wrote that he had something for me, and I should give him a call.

I did, and he said, “Remember that time at the NBA games in Yokohama in 1994 when Upper Deck took your photo and was going to make your card?

“Yes, I do recall that,” I told him.

“I have your card,” he said.

It turned out he lives not far from me, and we agreed to meet near my train station, so he could give me my card. We got together for a cup of coffee, and I expected he was going to give me one card. Instead, he pulled out of his back pack about a 15-cm thick stack and gave me 400 copies of my card.

Shimamoto said he had gotten his card some time in early 1995, and he was later contacted by the NBA Japan office when it was closing about 10 years ago. It seems my card, among others, had been sitting there when the office was being cleared out, and someone called Shimamoto to ask if he knew how to contact any of us whose addresses had apparently been lost.

He remembered me and kept my cards but took another decade or so to locate my address and send the postcard.

Curiously, my card is No. 51 in the series, the number Ichiro wore on his back all those years with Orix, the Seattle Mariners and Miami. I don’t know the number of Ichiro’s NBA card but wonder if it is a collector’s item or even if he has any left — assuming he did in fact get them.

Meanwhile, Japanese baseball fans are proud of their countryman’s stellar major league career and accumulating 3,000 hits after starting in the majors eight years into his professional career.

PJ Loyello, the Marlins’ senior vice president, communications & broadcasting, expressed how much his organization is thrilled to have Ichiro bang out his 3,000th hit in South Florida.

Loyello has visited Japan on several occasions and said last week, “We are extremely proud that Ichiro will reach this historic milestone in a Marlins uniform. The future Hall of Famer has quickly become one of Miami’s favorites, and our fans are now cheering every hit toward 3,000.”

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com

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