In 2013, on the occasion of Ichiro Suzuki’s 4,000th career hit in professional baseball, TSN Producer Shane McNeil looked at why baseball should celebrate the occasion with the respect it deserved.
Now, in 2016, he prepares to surpass Pete Rose’s all-time mark of 4,256. The same points deserve recognition in celebrating one of history’s greatest hitters.
Originally published on TSN.ca – August 22, 2013.
With a slap single off Blue Jays starter R.A. Dickey, Ichiro Suzuki joined one of baseball’s most exclusive groups: the 4,000 hit club. Ichiro joined only Pete Rose (4,256) and Ty Cobb (4,189) as the only men in the history of professional baseball to reach the plateau, reaching the milestone in his 2,981st professional game.
Here are five reasons why Ichiro’s achievement deserves the recognition it has received.
1. It’s the numbers that matter, not the details.
While some might argue an asterisk for those hits Ichiro accrued in the Japanese Professional League, those arguments must also be tempered by a couple facts.
Ichiro has registered more hits in Major League Baseball than any player in the first 13 years of his MLB career (2,722), eclipsing Paul Waner’s 2,648. The fact that he did not start his MLB career cannot and should not be held against him, since he was born and trained in Japan and naturally started his career there.
Ichiro has more hits from the age of 27 onward than the two men ahead of him which makes this achievement all the more astounding. Most players’ best years are prior to their 30th birthday. Ichiro did the majority of his work as a pro after that milestone.
Moreover, Ichiro was actually registering fewer at-bats per season in Japan than he would have in North America. His highest single-season AB total with Orix was his 546 in 1994. His lowest single-season total with Seattle was 647 in 2002.
While Ichiro’s Japanese averages were substantially higher than most of his MLB single-season totals (a .353 career mark vs. .320 in MLB), the greater number of at-bats means that had Ichiro been even a .300 hitter in the MLB he would have registered 200 hits per season, as opposed to the 180 or so he averaged in Japan.
Call the Nippon Professional Baseball League inferior all you like, it only masks the reality that had Ichiro started in North America in 1995 – three years after his Japanese career began – he would still be at 4,000 today, health permitting.
2. Baseball needs something to be proud of.
Whenever the “Steroid Era” is mentioned in connection to baseball, a few faces spring to mind.
Perhaps it’s Barry Bonds, or Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Perhaps it’s Jose Canseco or Alex Rodriguez.
Maybe it’s Ryan Braun.
The steroid problem in the Majors did not end with the Mitchell Report, nor is it likely to end with Biogenesis.
However, what the Steroid Era has achieved is calling into question virtually every major landmark and achievement over the past 25 or so years, give or take a Cal Ripken.
With Ichiro’s 4,000th hit – many of which never even left the infield – baseball has something to be proud of and it’s primarily based around one of the most elementary skills: Legging one out to first.
3. It allows MLB to celebrate one of its under-appreciated greats.
Ichiro has never been a spotlight hog, nor has he been a particularly flashy player.
A wise man once wrote, “This… is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.”
Ichiro did all three better than just about any player of his generation.
While his 110 home runs won’t win him any MVP votes, he managed a decade of achievement that is almost unparalleled in the most basic of baseball skills.
Between 2001 and 2010, Ichiro never finished lower than seventh in the American League batting race, hitting .310 or better every single season. Over that same span he finished in the top 10 in stolen bases every season, winning 10 Gold Gloves over that span and was selected to 10 All-Star Games.
Ichiro has played baseball in its purest sense better than the majority of his opposition as a Major Leaguer and – apart from his rookie season – drew surprisingly little attention to himself in the process.
If he plays another two or three seasons in North America, there may well be a celebration for his passage of Rose and Cobb on the hit list. But he may not, so why not take the opportunity to celebrate the man and his achievement?
(Ed. note: This piece was written before Ichiro’s lone MLB pitching appearance, which was a whole new level of genius)
4. It’s rare nowadays to see a true trailblazer at work.
Ichiro was not the first Japanese player to hit North America, nor will he be the last.
That said, he will undoubtedly be the first to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and will likely do so on the first ballot.
Ichiro was not faced with the obstacles of being the first, like Jackie Robinson, but he is the first Japanese player and certainly the first Japanese hitter to have such a career.
It is time to start thinking of Ichiro in the same vein as Roberto Clemente, his humanitarianism and martyrdom notwithstanding?
Clemente was not the first Latin American ballplayer to hit MLB, but he was the first to become a true force in the game and has since carried the flag for the majority of the subsequent ballplayers to flood the Majors from the Caribbean.
Will Ichiro open a similar floodgate for Japanese and Asian players to gain better prominence in MLB? Maybe not to the same extent as the close Caribbean cultures, but it’s not a stretch to think that Yu Darvish has Ichiro to thank at least in part for his current success and celebrity.
5. He may not be done yet.
Ichiro may well be in his final act in the Majors, but there is no way to know for certain.
A quiet man by nature, Ichiro has made no allusions toward retirement any time soon, nor has he hinted about a possible return to Japan.
At 39, Ichiro is two years younger than Cobb was at the time of his retirement and a full six years younger than Rose in his final season as a player.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility to play two more seasons and should he do so he still has both men to pass (Ed. note: See?!), as well as the incredible milestone of possibly reaching 3,000 hits in the majors – an asterisk-less achievement if ever there was one.
He is also still yet to play a World Series game, so a competitor of his stature could also be holding out to try to win a Championship before calling it a career.
Either way, the man still has plenty to play for.