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Time to salute Ichiro’s amazing feat, leave debate aside

by Jason Coskrey

Ichiro Suzuki took off his helmet to reveal a head a little more salt than pepper as he bowed in appreciation of the reception he was receiving after joining an exclusive club with the 4,000th professional hit of his career between Japan and the U.S. at Yankee Stadium.

Before Wednesday night, the 4,000-hit list consisted only of the all-time leader Pete Rose (4,256) and Ty Cobb (4,189).

It’s not an MLB record nor an NPB record, but it’s worthy of the highest of acknowledgement given how tough a mountain 4,000 professional hits is to climb. According to Brian Hoch of MLB.com, if you included minor league hits, only three additional players, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Jigger Statz, would sit among Rose, Cobb and Ichiro.

So, instead of the hand-wringing over where Ichiro recorded his hits, appreciate the achievement.

Ichiro had 1,278 hits for the Orix BlueWave under manager Akira Ogi, who in 1994 rescued the dynamic young outfielder from the farm team, branded him Ichiro so he would stand out, and fertilized the seeds of history with a little Ogi Magic.

The rest have come over 13 years with the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees.

Ichiro’s 4,000th hit was his first off Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey and the 2,722nd of his MLB career, moving him out of a tie with Yankees legend Lou Gehrig for 59th on the all-time list.

It’s entirely possible Ichiro would have surpassed 3,085 NPB hits to break Isao Harimoto’s record had he remained in Japan, or made a good run at Rose’s MLB record if he spent his entire career in the majors.

Those what ifs can be debated, but not answered.

What we do know is that Ichiro has reached one of the biggest round numbers in a game that loves to measure achievements in nice round numbers.

If that’s not something to celebrate, then what is?

So what if it won’t be in the official MLB record book. It’ll look good as one of the facts on the plaque that will be unveiled on some future Sunday afternoon in Cooperstown, New York.

The hand-wringing over whether to count his NPB hits in MLB is an unnecessary one — his Japanese career wasn’t taken into account when he was labeled a “rookie” in 2001, so it shouldn’t be now.

Celebrate Ichiro’s mark for what it is, a testament to a remarkable career that’s spanned almost 22 seasons and across two continents.

Ichiro won’t knock Rose, MLB’s Hit King, off his throne, but even at age 39 he has a shot at 3,000 major league hits, which would be an incredible feat for a player who took his first slap at an MLB pitch at age 27.

Prior to Wednesday’s game, ESPN Stats & Info tweeted that Ichiro had 374 more hits than any other player since his MLB debut in 2001 and the most over a 13-year span in MLB history.

In Japan, Ichiro hit .353 with 118 home runs and 529 RBIs in nine seasons. He won consecutive Pacific League MVP Awards from 1994-96 and led the BlueWave to the 1996 Japan Series title.

Still, there was considerable doubt surrounding his 2001 move to the Mariners, famously with some of it emanating from Mariners manager Lou Piniella.

Ichiro silenced the critics by winning the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year awards in 2001 while recording 242 hits to begin a record string of 10 straight 200-hit seasons.

In 2004, he broke the MLB single-season record with 262 hits, which at the time made him the holder of the single-season mark in both Japan and the U.S. — his NPB record of 210, set in 1994, was surpassed by the Hanshin Tigers’ Matt Murton, who finished with 214 in 2010.

Ichiro set the NPB record in a 130-game season, which Murton acknowledged at Jingu Stadium after his 211th hit.

“I believe he did it in 1994, 1994 and 2010 are two different seasons,” Murton said that night. “One thing is he played 130. We’re playing 144. It is what it is. It’s a great honor and I’m very excited about the honor. But again, in terms of Ichiro, this doesn’t change anything for him. He’s one of the best players in baseball.”

Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo helped pave MLB’s road to the Japanese market in 1995, but it was Ichiro who brought the relationship into the 21st century. He’s grown old in MLB and, along with Hideki Matsui for many years, carried the Japanese baseball flag at a high level long enough for new stars such as Yu Darvish to emerge.

Let the other arguments wait until the final chapter of his career is written, and for the present, give Ichiro his due.

For now, Ichiro has reached the 4,000-hit milestone. He deserves to at least get a pat on the back without the weight of unnecessary arguments for it.

  • Roger March

    A forgotten pioneer of Japanese baseballers entering MLB was Yutaka Enatsu who attempted to play MLB at age 36 in 1985 after a great career in Japan. He signed with the Milwaukee Brewers but after failing to make the major leagues he returned to Japan.

  • KaiHarate

    this is an insult to pete rose’s record. pete rose was epic. the record is astounding and done against the world’s best pitching over 20 years. you can get 200 hits for 20 seasons and still be 256 short. rose had to be as good old as he was young to accomplish 4,256. what makes rose’s record is what he did after age 35. ichiro is showing now he is no rose…he’s fading fast and below average hitter now. rose didn’t fade as ichiro and all others who got close or over 3000 did. 38 year old rose hit .331 with 208 hits. age 39 he got 185 hits. 40 year old rose hit .328. age 41 got 175 hits. batted a very respectable .286 in 450 plate appearances age 42. that record is about doing something great for 20+ years. not 12. it’s a HUGE difference as father time begins to punish players around 14-15 years of baseball and quickly takes away their peak talent. 36-40 years old are epic for anyone still playing high level like rose. it’s 10,000 miles away from what ichiro is doing now.

    ichiro will have a hard time getting those 250 hits to reach 3,000. he got 600-700 infield hits but now that weapon is gone. no more infield hits. now that his secret weapon is gone, he has to pure hit not beat out lots of infield outs to reach 3000. we are witnessing why he couldn’t break rose’s record had he played entire career in mlb. he has 128 hits the second week of september. he will be lucky to get to 2750 at season’s end. then he will find it hard to get 125 hits next season and 125 following season. he will need to play 3 seasons after this one to get 3000. what team will take 43ish ichiro to reach 3000 mark? not the yankees. johnny damon got to 2700 age 37 and still decent. he retired with 2769.

    and what would have happened if pete rose played japan baseball age 18-21 instead of minor leagues? give him 700 hits. now you’re talking 5,000 hits. does anybody really believe 18 year old, 140 pound, high school graduate, ichiro would have stepped onto an mlb field like he did in japan? what if derek jeter played 5 minor league seasons in japan to develop? i’ll give him 900 hits. that would give him 4,300+ hits right now. but let’s fantasize and say a 23 year old ichiro started banging out 200 hits right away in mlb. age 23-26 is 800 hits. he’d be 3500+ hits right now. 700 hits shy of rose. THAT’s how amazing rose’s record is. even if you give ichiro 1,100 more hits…he’s still short 400. rose came in age 22 and was banging out hits 20 years later. it’s a record very few people actually appreciate how difficult to attain. ichiro’s 4,000 is silly when comparing it to what rose had to do.

    9 seasons in japan means 9 seasons in japan. nothing else. the proof is what has happened to japanese players in mlb. only ichiro and matsui survived mlb pitching. all other japan stars couldn’t succeed. most japan pitchers failed. most gaijin in japan couldn’t make it in mlb. no japan pitcher dominated mlb for 5 or more seasons like top pitchers do. tuffy rhodes was as good as oh-san. he would have hit 60 home runs twice if japan let him. oh’s record should have fallen 3 times already. it’s about to fall finally. that’s four gaijin better than oh-san (a gaijin ironically via is taiwanese father) who were just average players in mlb. THAT is how good mlb is. ichiro should NEVER be mentioned in same sentence as pete rose. mention him with great slap hitters of all time but it cheapens rose’s accomplishment to include ichiro in 4,000 hit club.

    • Ben Snyder

      Good grief, get off your high horse about Pete Rose already. The man cheapened himself. Even setting aside the fact that he is one of the most disgraced figures that tarnished the sport at least as much as he popularized it, the era he belongs to was so doped to the gills on steroids, amphetamines, and cocaine as to make most performances utterly meaningless. If you want a worship a more balanced and objective set of performances, look back to Ty Cobb (with a shorter season, to boot). Too bad that guy was a scumbag, too.

      Say what you will about Ichiro, but at least he is clean.