David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
It’s not enough to deny Pete Rose a plaque in Cooperstown. Some people apparently won’t be satisfied until Rose has been stripped of his longstanding record for hits as well.
How else can anyone describe what happened this past week, when Ichiro Suzuki, a future Hall of Famer and a once-in-a-generation talent, continued his relentless pursuit of the 3,000-hit milestone in the United States with a single and double Wednesday against the Padres.
The pair of hits nudged Ichiro to within 21 of the hallowed mark, which is a tremendous accomplishment on its own, considering that only 29 players have ever reached it. But Ichiro then got dragged into a controversy when media outlets, along with MLB.com, referred to him as dethroning Rose, by virtue of his 1,278 hits with the Orix Blue Wave -- his team during a nine-year career in Japan -- that bumped him up to a combined 4,257.
Again, an incredible feat, and anyone who has witnessed Ichiro’s tireless preparation, from his elaborate pregame regimen to monitoring the humidity of his bats, knows it is well-deserved. Just like with Rose, the art of hitting is something Ichiro clearly takes great pride in.
But tying these two players together, for the purpose of elevating Ichiro above Rose on the hit scale, regardless of what continent, isn’t a fair argument. We’re not exactly sure where the borders should be drawn for the Hit King’s official jurisdiction as baseball continues its global reach. Just that Rose should still retain his title, and Ichiro has earned the unique recognition of excellence while playing in the sport’s two highest leagues.
“To be honest, this wasn’t something that I was making out as a goal,” Ichiro told reporters Wednesday in San Diego. “It was just kind of a weird situation to be in because of the combined total.”
Ichiro also deserves credit for handling the matter much more diplomatically than Rose, who probably brought this down upon himself by lashing out to USA Today as the Marlins’ outfielder approached the disputed number. Denigrating the quality of Nippon Professional Baseball, or NPB, showed terrible judgment for a person who’s made too many bad decisions in the past. Rather than express kinship with a fellow baseball artisan, Rose instead took the low road, and further emboldened his detractors.
“It sounds like in Japan, they’re trying to make me the Hit Queen,” Rose told USA Today. “I’m not trying to take anything away from Ichiro, he’s had a Hall of Fame career, but the next thing you know, they’ll be counting his high school hits. I don’t think you’re going to find anybody with credibility say that Japanese baseball is equivalent to major-league baseball ... It has something to do with the caliber of the personnel.”
Sure, MLB is globally recognized as the pinnacle for the sport, which is why many of the top Japanese players strive to test their skills in the States. And of that group, a handful have achieved true crossover stardom here, while others have built respectable careers. Is it more difficult for players to be successful hitters here than in Japan? Scouts would say yes. Looking at Ichiro’s career numbers, he had a slash line of .353/.421/.522 in Japan followed by a 314/.357/.405 in 16 MLB seasons.
But you also have to take into account that Ichiro didn’t arrive in the States until age 27, so this was the back nine of his career, and he still had four seasons hitting over .350, including .372 in 2004, the year he won the batting title. Ichiro also won the MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same ’01 season, and is a 10-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner.
That’s getting a little off topic, however. Certainly no one is disputing Ichiro’s ability in comparisons with Rose’s enduring accomplishment. And back home in Japan, where Ichiro is a rock star, he’s being feted as more the King of Baseball entirely than merely someone who’s compiled thousands of hits.
“A Japanese athlete has once again made a monumental contribution,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the Associated Press, “and I feel tremendous pride.”
For Ichiro to be so admired in his home country, and viewed as a national hero of sorts, is an honor reserved for very few sports icons. Whether he got to this point or not, his status in Japan already had been cemented long ago. And when Ichiro does get to 3,000 MLB hits in a few more weeks, that will kick off another round of celebrations, just because that’s been traditionally held up as a magical number here in the States since the invention of the game.
The same is true for Rose’s 4,256 hits, all earned playing Major League Baseball. That’s still the record. Although Ichiro, who at 42 has given no hint about retirement, seems far from finished.