It was the infield single heard round the world.
Ichiro’s scratch hit on Wednesday afternoon, the 4,256th hit of his professional career became a reason to celebrate and reflect around the baseball world.
With that hit, the 42-year-old tied the top-flight pro total of major league hit leader Pete Rose, sparking a debate in the United States about the relative merits and difficulty between Japan’s major leagues and America’s. In his homeland, a former opponent, Hall of Fame pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo took the opportunity to speak of Ichiro’s impact on baseball and society.
“What he has accomplished transcends baseball,” Kudo, currently the manager of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks said Thursday at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium. “He’s not a big man, but he was determined, passionate, focused. To see what he has accomplished makes you realize dreams are worth following, that they can be realized.
“This is important for baseball, but the message applies to every aspect in life, that regardless of who you are, you can aspire and achieve,” said 53-year-old, who graduated from the same high school in Aichi Prefecture.
As the ace pitcher of the Seibu Lions when Ichiro won his first Most Valuable Player in Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League, Kudo described a youngster who would go on to make a huge impact.
“I thought, ‘This kid is amazing.’ He could react to anything you threw him. What he accomplished in Japan was spectacular, but what he has continued to do is a testament to his determination and work effort.
“One thing that made him special was that he knew what he was physically capable of doing at a very young age. He knew what he had to do to become the player he could be. That is remarkable.”
Yasuo Fujii, a former teammate of Ichiro’s with the Orix BlueWave, said Ichiro taught him and the nation a huge lesson with stunning success while using a batting style that his first pro manager ridiculed.
“Here’s this cute little boy out of high school and he knows himself,” said Fujii, currently a batting coach with the Hawks. “He had a style that was not permissible by the thinking of coaches at that time. He’d come up to the first team, not hit so well, get sent down, and refine his technique some more.”
Prior to his third year as a pro, revolutionary skipper Akira Ogi took over the BlueWave and everything changed for Ichiro. As manager of the Kintetsu Buffaloes, Ogi was the man who allowed Hideo Nomo to use his unique tornado windup to devastating effect. He did the same with Ichiro.
“Ogi was a huge factor, because other managers would have just kept sending Ichiro back to the farm team,” Fujii said. “Because Ichiro was successful, everyone tried to copy him. I tried to copy him, but I couldn’t.”
Ichiro’s stance, a study in balance perpetual motion, demolished the orthodoxy of Japan’s batting coaches, Fujii said.
“We could no longer tell a player, this won’t work,” he said. “Everything became about results, and it gave us new ideas about what was possible.
“It taught players to think for themselves, to experiment and trust their instincts. It was a good thing for Japanese baseball.”
All-time home run king and Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh as well as former Yomiuri Giants’ legend Shigeo Nagashima had high praise for Ichiro’s latest accomplishment.
“The image of Ichiro pushing on to reach new heights, even at the age of 42, captivates baseball fans around the world including me,” said Oh, who hit 868 career home runs. “I wish for even more success from him producing as many hits as he can.”
Nagashima said, “I send my sincere compliments to Ichiro who achieved another great feat. I hope to see him continue to add to hits and lead Japanese baseball as a pioneer among Japanese major leaguers.”