Mr. Ichiro Suzuki (better known as Ichiro), the left-handed hitting outfielder for the Seattle Mariners, on Sunday concluded the 2004 playing season with the unprecedented single-season record of 262 hits. Three singles in Friday night’s game against the Texas Rangers already had propelled him past George Sisler, giving him the record for hits in a season. The record is a testimony to Ichiro’s determination to excel, his work ethic and his steady performance.
Hitting a baseball has often been called one of the hardest jobs in sports. A hitter must swing and control a piece of wood to make it connect with a spinning, speeding, curving ball that is being aimed near — and sometimes at — his body at speeds that can exceed 160 kilometers per hour. Some reckon that a batter must begin to swing before the pitcher even releases the ball if he is going to make contact.
All of this occurs under hothouse conditions, with considerable distractions — noise from the fans, bright lights, a psychological battle with the opposing pitcher and catcher — day in and out for over six months a year. It is little surprise then that the record for hits in a single season has been held for over 84 years — one of the oldest records in baseball — by Sisler, a little-known player from the St. Louis Browns who batted 257 hits in 1920.
But then players like Ichiro only come around once every several generations. That may be why many consider him something of a throwback, a pure hitter in an age that worships power and the Herculean strength of Mr. Barry Bonds, the home-run hitting king of the San Francisco Giants. Ichiro takes his job seriously; he is the leadoff man and that means he is supposed to get on base. That he does. Whether it is a bunt, an infield chop that allows him to beat the throw to first, or one of those seemingly effortless pokes that delivers the ball to where an infielder isn’t, Ichiro collects hits. This year, he has had four 5-hit games, six 4-hit games, 24 3-hit games and 46 2-hit games. He had been shut out only 26 times this season.
Credit an old-fashioned work ethic. Ichiro has worked tirelessly since he first picked up a bat to perfect his swing. He has developed a way to work the ball, to anticipate the pitch and to get his hands in position to direct the bat and guide the ball. He is aided by being left-handed, which means he is closer to first base when he makes contact with the ball, and by being just plain fast — Ichiro gets to first in 3.6 seconds; the average major leaguer takes 4.3. It is that speed that helps explain why 52 of Ichiro’s hits this season never even left the infield.
Some disparage Ichiro’s effort, claiming that Sisler established the record in a 154-game season. That argument gets trotted out every time someone challenges a long-standing record. Roger Maris heard it when he bested Babe Ruth with 61 home runs in a season; some said he should put an asterisk next to his record. The best rejoinder to this is that a longer season means players are more tired by the end. And today they face fireballing relievers — specialists who come into a game late, rested and ready to do battle.
Nonetheless, Ichiro has managed to collect one record after another. During his nine seasons with the Orix in Japan’s Pacific League, he was a four-time All Star. He racked up 1,278 hits and left the country for the U.S. majors with a .353 hitting average. In his first year in the United States, in 2001, he collected 242 hits, breaking the previous record for hits by a rookie (held by “Shoeless” Joe Jackson since 1911). That helped win him the American League’s Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year. This year is the fourth season that Ichiro has had at least 200 hits, the first player to ever reach that mark; he has already broken the record for most hits over a four-year period. Nor is he just a hitter: He has won three Golden Gloves, awarded by other players, for his tenacious defense in right field during his first three years.
For all his accomplishments, Ichiro remains a student of the game. In 2001, he made a trip to Cooperstown, Ohio, to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was there when he was named the Rookie of the Year. When asked about the trip Ichiro talked more about holding Jackson’s famous bat than his award. The balls that he hit up the middle to pass Sisler are already on their way to the Hall. Ichiro needs six more years in the majors to qualify for membership. If he completes those six seasons, this year’s record will only be one of many highlights when they induct him. It promises to be quite a list. Ichiro will continue his assault on the baseball record books.
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