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Monday, June 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

Ichiro everything one fan imagined

Atlanta reliever Jung Keun Bong stood nervously near the Mariners' dugout, a baseball in each hand, as excited as a Little Leaguer, waiting as Ichiro took his final batting-practice cuts.

All weekend, Bong had waited for this moment. Earlier in the day he worried that maybe the Mariners wouldn't take batting practice and he wouldn't be able to find Ichiro.

Growing up in Seoul, South Korea, playing center field in high school, he watched Ichiro play center for the Orix Blue Wave. He saw the speed, the arm, the creativity. Ichiro was everything Bong wanted to become.

For two days he rehearsed his speech. He knew exactly what he wanted to say to Ichiro. And now the moment had come.

"I wasn't nervous, but it was weird," Bong said after yesterday's 2-1 Mariners win. "This was my dream. I always wanted to talk with him. Since I was in high school. Now six years later, I'm in the major leagues, and today I got to meet him. And it was a great time."

This was one of those sweet moments that reminds us baseball still is a kid's game and the players remain fans.

After Ichiro left the cage, Bong asked a reporter for a pen, then cautiously walked up to Ichiro and introduced himself. They shook hands, and the Atlanta pitcher was beaming the way every kid in every city would if he or she got a similar chance.

Bong showed Ichiro his uniform number — 51, a tribute to his hardball hero. He told Ichiro he changed his number when he was a junior in high school and has kept 51 since, even after he left center field to become a pitcher.

"I changed it for you," Bong told Ichiro, and the Mariners' right fielder smiled and said, "That's good." They talked, in English, for maybe five minutes. Ichiro signed both baseballs.

"He knew me already, and that made me feel great," Bong said. "We talked, and he told me to have fun every day. He said to just play baseball and not worry about any other thing. He wished for me to have a good season, and I said the same to him."

Like the rest of us yesterday, Bong, 22, was fortunate to see the best of Ichiro. He saw a hitter win a game with his legs. Two Ichiro singles that didn't total more than 180 feet were the difference in the game.

"Two infield hits. That's what he does," Braves manager Bobby Cox said.

The first was a slow grounder to second that rattled Braves second baseman Marcus Giles so much the ball rolled under his bare hand. Ichiro stole second, went to third on a botched pickoff attempt and scored on Bret Boone's double.

Ichiro plays baseball like a point guard. He puts constant pressure on the defense. He forces teams to think too much. He controls the tempo.

In his second at-bat, he hit a routine two-hopper to shortstop Rafael Furcal and beat Furcal's blistering throw by two steps. He stole second, stole third and scored on a weak grounder by Boone to Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddux.

"I wanted to pitch against him. I wanted to," Bong said. "I waited for the call. But even though it didn't come, I enjoyed a great game and I enjoyed watching Ichiro playing a great game, so I'm very happy. Now, maybe one time I will face him. Maybe in the World Series. You never know. I will wait for that."

Ichiro seemed genuinely flattered by Bong's enthusiasm. Their talk was short, but very affectionate. It was two ballplayers from the other half of the world sharing a new friendship before a remarkable game.

"I'm always rooting for him," Ichiro said through an interpreter. "He came to this country at the age of 18, by himself, and spent some time in the minor leagues, and then finally made it into major-league baseball. He's a player from the same area of the Earth as me, and I will always want him to have good luck.

"What he said about me was a good reminder that I have to have the same feeling toward the other players."

Even in the loss, even though he didn't get to pitch in the series, Bong, who is 5-1 with a 3.48 earned-run average, had a moment as indelible as his first big-league win.

He said the autographed baseballs would go back to Seoul with him. He already has a special place for them.

"I always wished I had one autograph of Ichiro, and now I have two," he said. "I wish we could have talked more. I was kind of surprised he spoke his English very well.

"But he was taking batting practice, and I had to let him get his hits. Still, today was my dream coming true."

It was a day when a big-leaguer could feel as fortunate as the rest of us. A day we all got to watch a gem of a ballgame and a marvel of a right fielder.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com More columns at seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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