Ichiro: A Baseball Artist Reaches 3,000

At 42, Ichiro Suzuki is just a few hits shy of becoming the 30th player to reach the 3,000-hit milestone. He could get there as early as this weekend and, in his sixteenth big-league season he will become the second fastest to achieve this, behind only career hits leader Pete Rose. When he does crank out hit number 3,000, he will join Hall-of-Famers Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins and Paul Molitor as the only players with at least 3,000 hits, 500 or more stolen bases and a career batting average over .300. That, ladies and gentleman, is what is known as select company.

Reaching 3,000 hits speaks to both talent and endurance and is an achievement rivaled only by 300 wins for a pitcher, or 500 home runs for a slugger. It’s always marked and celebrated, but Ichiro’s case is special, more of an historic landmark that goes beyond the boundaries of baseball norms. He will become the first non-American player to reach this rarefied plateau. And, more importantly, he will become the first – and likely the only – player to do so after beginning his major-league career at the fairly late age of 27.

He came to the majors with the Seattle Mariners in 2001 after a sensational nine-year career in Japan with the Orix Blue Wave, which made him that country’s most famous athlete, known simply as “Ichiro”. He began his pro career in 1992 at 18 and might have become a star sooner, except that his hidebound manager Shõzõ Doi refused to accept his unorthodox batting stance and “pendulum” leg kick, sending him to the farm team for the better part of two seasons. In 1994, Doi was replaced by Akira Õgi, who understood Ichiro’s talent better, and the rest is history. His .385 batting average that year set a Pacific League record and earned him the first of seven consecutive batting titles. He also became the first-ever Japanese player to top 200 hits with 210 that season, which has since been surpassed twice. In all, he finished his career in Japanese baseball with 1,278 hits and three MVP awards.

As recently as last year when he joined the Miami Marlins, it seemed doubtful that Ichiro would have the chance to reach 3,000 hits, as he suffered through his first truly bad season. He was forced into full-time play because of injuries to the team’s other outfielders, and his body wasn’t up to the task – he hit a career-low .229 and his .279 slugging percentage ranked last among all major-league hitters. Worn out, he went 12-for-97 (.124) over his final 36 games. He seemed to be washed up and it was uncertain whether the Marlins – or any other team – would give him a chance at another season and the 3,000th hit.

But the Marlins gave him another shot as a fourth outfielder this year and he’s playing much less, but much better; the part-time role being his only concession to age. Through last Friday, his average in 179 at-bats was a robust .341, with an excellent OPS of .814, better than his career mark in that category. Miami manager Don Mattingly, who after 35 years in the game has seen a few things, has said, “What Ichiro has been able to do right now is phenomenal.” In fact, Ichiro feels so rejuvenated that he has repeatedly expressed – in both Japanese and English – a desire to play until he’s 50. And, who could put it past him? Not Terry Collins, long-time Mets manager and a close friend of Ichiro’s, who has pointed out that the Japanese are not known as kidders or idle boasters, and that if anyone could do it, the fitness-obsessed Ichiro would be the one.

***

With Pete Rose and Ichiro being the fastest to reach 3,000 hits, there have been inevitable comparisons between the two. And, as the Ichiro countdown began in earnest a few weeks ago, these comparisons sparked some controversy. Rose is baseball’s all-time leader in hits with 4,256, but Ichiro partisans pointed out that, if the 1,278 hits he amassed in the Japanese professional leagues were added to the 3,000 or more he will inevitably achieve in the majors, then Ichiro is actually the all-time hits leader in professional baseball. With predictable bellicosity, Rose asked….. why don’t they include his Little League hits too? Defensive and crass or not, Rose has a point. In a major-league career, only major-league statistics count. Period. Ichiro’s Japanese league hits can’t be counted any more than the stats amassed by black players in the old Negro Leagues could. It doesn’t seem entirely fair, but there’s no way to convert numbers from other leagues, they’re non-transferable.

This controversy was fueled by arguments that were badly framed, and badly couched. The point was not that Ichiro’s Japanese numbers should count, not literally. The point is that, given the spectacularly high level he established entering the majors as a 27-year-old rookie in 2001 – he won both Rookie of the Year and the AL MVP award that year – and that he sustained that high level for years to come, it seems more than reasonable to think that if he’d entered the majors at the more normal age of 20 or 21, then he would indeed be baseball’s all-time hits leader by now. The only thing that prevented Ichiro from reaching the majors sooner was that, in Japanese pro baseball, players are not eligible for free agency (including a move to America), until they’ve played seven full seasons with a major Japanese club. What might have been is not the same thing as what actually is, but in Ichiro’s case it makes sense that he would have at least 4,000 hits by now if he’d been born in America.

But these hypotheticals miss the most interesting question in this debate: namely, who was the better player, Rose or Ichiro?

So, let’s look at it. Both won a Rookie of the Year award and one MVP award. Rose’s came ten years apart – in 1963 and 1973 – whereas Ichiro joined Fred Lynn as the only other player to capture both awards in his first season. As hitters, Rose and Suzuki are quite close, at least at first glance. Generally, they were the same type of hitter – high-average, top-of-the-order contact hitters with line-drive power, but not many home runs. Each specialized in 200-hit seasons, with a record ten apiece (Ichiro did it ten straight times between 2001 and 2010). Comparing their actual totals of things is hardly useful or fair, because Rose played about 1,100 more games and had about 4,500 more at-bats than Ichiro, so obviously his totals in everything are higher. They have to be compared by numbers which are expressed as percentages, like batting average, on-base and slugging percentage, and so on.

Ichiro’s career batting average is .314, Rose’s is .303. Advantage Ichiro, but not by much. I’m surprised that Ichiro’s career average isn’t higher, but remember, it was compiled from the age of 27 on and includes the decline of his older years without the glory of his youth. Rose walked a little more, his OBP of .375 is 18 points higher. Neither was a power hitter, but Rose was bigger and had a little more pop than Ichiro, he hit a few more doubles per season. Per at-bat, Ichiro hit more home runs and triples, but basically it’s a wash in terms of power – Rose has a .409 slugging percentage and Ichiro’s sits at .405. Rose hit the ball a little harder and Ichiro hit it more often.

Rose won three batting titles (in 1968, ’69 and 1973, with averages of .338, .348, and .335 respectively) and Ichiro won two (in 2001 .350, and 2004, .372). I’m surprised Ichiro didn’t win more titles, but he did finish second in the batting race twice, with averages of .351 and .352, marks slightly higher than Rose managed in any season of his career. One impressive advantage Rose holds is that he walked more (1,566 times) than he struck out (1,143), whereas Ichiro struck out more often than he walked (1,013 to 619). I find this surprising too, I would have thought Suzuki would have walked more. But, then again, banging out 230 hits a season in his prime like clockwork, he was turning many walks into singles. I see them being quite even as hitters, the difference being that Rose spread his talents out over 24 seasons, whereas Ichiro’s greatest accomplishments were mostly packed into an incredible ten-year stretch between 2001 and 2010. In his prime, I would say Ichiro’s batting talents were pitched a little higher than Rose’s, as evidenced by his 2004 season. That was the year Ichiro hit .372 and broke George Sisler’s single-season record of 257 hits, which had stood since 1920. And it wasn’t close, Ichiro blasted by it with 262 hits, a record that won’t soon be broken, if ever. Pete Rose was a great hitter, but we was never going to have a season like that, not in a million years.

Still, they were very comparable hitters, but hitting is only part of the game. Another part is speed and, in this, there’s no comparison. Pete Rose had the nickname “Charlie Hustle” bestowed on him by a hero-worshiping baseball press who loved the way he sprinted everywhere when it didn’t count, like from home to first on a walk, or from the on-deck circle to home plate for his next at-bat. But, although he was a good, hyper-aggressive baserunner, Rose was never fast. He stole 198 bases in a twenty-four year career. Ichiro has stolen 507 bases in sixteen years and counting, he had much more speed. And still does – this year in limited time he’s stolen nine bases and been caught twice; Kevin Pillar, fifteen years younger, has stolen eight so far.

Then there’s defense, the area where Ichiro holds the greatest edge over Rose. He won ten consecutive Gold Gloves, 2001-10, and Rose never won any, not one. That would seem to settle the question, but I’d like to dwell on Ichiro’s play as an outfielder because it was my favourite part about watching him at work.

He is regarded as one of the great defensive right-fielders of all time, both by the numbers and the evidence of the naked eye. I’ll take the naked eye, and memory. In his prime, he had a right-fielder’s cannon-like arm, with the blazing speed, range and instincts of a center-fielder. And he played with reckless abandon, fearlessly sprinting into treacherous corners or up against walls, whirling around in a blur and firing the ball back in with astonishing accuracy, a laser beam every time. And the agility, he was like a colt out there, a gazelle, he played the outfield with perfection and great èlan. With the precision of a finely calibrated machine, but one that moved like Nijinsky.

At best, Pete Rose was average defensively, but has some people fooled into thinking he was better than that because he played four different positions. Some players – like Gil McDougald, or Paul Molitor – played multiple positions because they could throw and had the athleticism and smarts to field well anywhere on the diamond to meet the shifting needs of their teams. With Rose, it was quite the opposite – he moved positions when his teams wanted to keep his bat in the lineup but found a better defensive player to replace him with. He started his career at second base and when he quickly proved inadequate there, was moved to left field, the least challenging and important of all positions. He stayed there until mid-1975, when he moved to third base to make room for George Foster in left. The move won the pennant for the Reds – not because of Rose’s glove at third, but because of Foster’s bat in the lineup everyday. Late in his career he played first base but by that time he could barely move or throw, he wasn’t very good. His versatility was valuable, but he was only an adequate defender.

Rose does have one very significant edge over Ichiro: he played on six National League pennant winners (the Reds in 1970, 1972, 1975 and 1976; the Phillies in 1980 and 1983) and three World Series champions (1975-76, 1980), while Ichiro has yet to appear in a World Series. The closest he came was his in fabulous rookie season with Seattle in 2001, when the Mariners had a record of 116-46, tying the 1906 Cubs for the most wins ever. They scored the most runs in the major leagues and gave up the fewest, but shockingly lost the ALCS to the Yankees in five games.

But, while he undoubtedly made large contributions to those winning teams, Rose had the advantage of being surrounded on the Big Red Machine by sure-fire Hall-of-Fame players like Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, managed by Sparky Anderson, another Hall-of-Famer. Not to mention other really good players like Dave Concepcion, Ken Griffey, Foster, and a great bullpen. And on the Phillies, he played with immortals like Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, plus other fine players such as Garry Maddox, Bob Boone and Larry Bowa. The Mariner teams Ichiro played on had some talent too, but not enough to compete in a league dominated by high-payroll teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels. By and large, they couldn’t keep up.

There’s one other important thing to consider: character. Ballplayers are not just athletes, they’re people and teammates with the responsibility of representing the game to fans and the world at large. Pete Rose failed miserably in this. He was such an unlovely character that, despite his huge popularity in his glory years, and despite surpassing Ty Cobb as baseball’s all-time hits leader, he is not in the Hall of Fame. And won’t be anytime soon, because baseball has banished him, likely for good. Even before his disgraced fall, I never liked Pete Rose. Nevertheless, I feel his banishment is a raw deal, because I don’t believe MLB made the case that he bet on ballgames he played in convincingly enough to hold up in a real court of law, with rules of evidence and the presumption of innocence in play. However, baseball has its own court, and where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire. The cumulative taint of his many sleazy transgressions – the associations with low-life creeps and criminals and gyms that were fronts for peddling drugs and steroids, the serial adulterous womanizing, the shameless selling off of valuable personal memorabilia to finance his obsessive gambling, and more – left baseball with little choice but to wash its hands of him.

In stark contrast, Ichiro has represented the game – and let us not forget, his country – with nothing but class and dignity. And, despite his greatness, with humility; there was never any “check me out” in him. He never took steroids or got caught with his pants down, never did or said anything dumb to embarrass the game. He paved the way for the many good Asian-born players who now play baseball in the major leagues, which has grown the game and been beneficial to all.

This is a no-brainer, it’s easy to see who the better person is. Ichiro is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and a solid citizen while Rose, despite his name, is a weed. A self-aggrandizing thug who dumped all over the game, the Donald Trump of baseball.

So, let’s tot it up. Rose and Ichiro are about equal as great hitters. Rose has the glory of championships in his favour. But Ichiro was far better with the glove, the arm, on the base paths, in the clubhouse and in the world away from baseball. I’m sure it will drive xenophobes and fans of Pete Rose and the Cincinnati Reds crazy, but I see no choice but to conclude that Ichiro is the better player, by a wide margin. In all honesty, who would you rather have on your team?

***

Like baseball itself, there are too many numbers in this article. I’m going to dispense with them from here on, because they don’t do a player like Ichiro Suzuki justice. The numbers are fine when the party’s over, but the best way to appreciate a player as unique as Ichiro is to see him in action. He was thrilling and unforgettable in his prime, but he’s still something to see. Like last night in Philadelphia, when he came up as a pinch-hitter late in the game and promptly rifled a sharp single down the right-field line and zipped down to first base like a whippet. It was hit number 2,998 and the fans went absolutely crazy.

It’s fitting that early greats such as Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins and George Sisler should come up in discussions of Ichiro’s accomplishments. He’s something of a throwback player himself and watching him play often gives off an old-timey baseball feeling. His skills are such that he would have been an asset in any era or style of baseball, including the home run-happy times. But he would have particularly shone in the kind of baseball played prior to 1920, before the long ball dominated the action. When the game was all about bat control and not striking out, about making contact, bunting and sacrifices, spraying line drives to all fields, wreaking havoc on the base-paths. When it was more about skill than muscle.

I’ve heard dumbo proponents of modern baseball demean Ichiro as “just another dinky singles-hitter”, which is laughable. First of all, singles count too and he’s not just another singles-hitter, he’s the greatest singles-hitter of his generation. Secondly, very few of his hits were, or are, “dinky”, they come flying off his bat with great velocity and a loud, unmistakable crack! They’re hard line drives that don’t travel very deep or high because he’s not muscle-bound and has a perfectly level swing rather than an uppercut one. And thirdly, his great defense and speed made him a complete player, one who changed the scoreboard often.

So, a unique player and a unique career. In his prime, there was an almost mechanical consistency to his numbers, his results. And yet, his form in achieving these on the field was anything but robotic. He was electrifying, one of the most vivid and aesthetically pleasing ballplayers of recent times. Who will soon forget those odd Dr. Spock sideburns, the excruciating deep knee bends before every at-bat, his intense little grin, the Energizer Bunny act on the bases and in the outfield, the small frame with the wiry, chiseled physique and above all, the whip-quick bat lashing out yet another solid base hit.

He combined many contradictory things – kinetic energy with still concentration, consistency with surprise, precision with joy, effort with grace – and in so doing, raised his game to the level of art. So in a few days when he cracks his 3,000th, we should all tip our hats to him. Not just for the milestone, but for all the years of baseball pleasure he’s given us. He dominated baseball in his home country and then came to a much bigger stage in a strange, foreign land. And in his own special way, he dominated it there too. It can’t have been easy, but he made it look like it was.

© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Ichiro: A Baseball Artist Reaches 3,000

  1. Beautiful piece Steve. I love how Jerry Howarth always refers to him as “the great Ichiro”. Which he certainly is.

  2. Great post Steve. I’ve been an Ichiro fan for a long time and distinctly remember his record-breaking season in 2004 (despite not being a Mariners fan). Funny thing was I thought he had already broken the all-time record a few months ago; I guess I was just adding his Japanese stats to his MLB ones. Shows how much I know about numbers :^)

  3. great piece contest -ron woods-there is speculation that if he wanted he could hit 22-28 hrs a season–in fact he was suggested for this years home run

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