By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
Usually, being compared to a broken record is a bad thing. Broken, in and of itself has a negative connotation. Add to it the noun “record,” and the phrase births the common meaning of something annoying. Mostly, it refers to people or things that need to shut the hell up. That being said, when it comes to Ichiro Suzuki, a baseball god in Japan shrouded in privacy and smattered with quirk, playing like a broken record just might be the perfect description.
First of all, for the clever-thinkers out there, the metaphor works on several different levels—just like the man to whom this entire column is dedicated.
With all the ups and downs in a sport that sees relief pitchers dominate one year and get lit up the next, where hitting .300 is an accomplishment, where injuries and trades and life seem to always be getting in the way—over the past decade, one fact has been so consistent, so reliable, that it has transformed the extraordinary, into the mundane. This now ho-hum reality has, year in and year out, repeated itself over and over and over and…you get the point.
Thursday afternoon, in a non-meaningful game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Suzuki stroked a fifth-inning single to center to collect his 200th hit, tying a Major League record by reaching the milestone for the 10th time in his career and breaking his own record by doing so consecutively.
No player in Major League history has done that. Not Mr.-sharpen-my-metal-spiked-shoes, Ty Cobb, who was baseball’s career hits leader for over a half a century. Not, I-didn’t-but-I-did-bet-on-baseball Pete Rose, the man who replaced Cobb as the all-time hits leader.
Cobb had nine non-consecutive 200-hit seasons over a 24-year career. Rose had 10, but stretched them over 15 of his 24 seasons and never had more than three in a row.
Willie Keeler had eight such seasons nearly a century ago, but he’s been in Ichiro’s rearview going on two years now. Oh yeah, also with eight is some dude named Lou Gehrig.
In fact, of the thousands who have played baseball over the past 120 plus years, only 17 have gotten 200 hits five times.
Of the active players? Derek Jeter (who will soon add Academy Award-winning actor to his resume for his role in what umpire Lance Barksdale called “Spellbinding!”) has seven…in 16.
Look at those names. Rose, Cobb, Gehrig….even Jeter. And yet, Ichiro stands alone.
Furthermore, look at the teams those players played on. Rose led the Big Red Machine. Cobb’s Tigers reached the World Series on several occasions. Gehrig and Jeter played for the Yankees and have 11 World Series rings between them.
Ichiro has been mired on a team that literally celebrated last season over an 85-win campaign and third place finish in the American League West like it was 1999. After his first three seasons here in the States, #51 has collected his 200-plus hits on teams that have finished in the bottom three offenses six of the last seven years.
During the one season he had top shelf offensive production behind him, the man won Rookie of the Year and the AL MVP.
When Ichiro came to Seattle as the first Japanese position player to move into an American lineup, he was an unknown quantity. Lou Piniella, the Seattle manager at the time, said he thought Ichiro would acquit himself well if he hit .280 or .290. Instead, Ichiro pounded out 242 hits, hit .350 and took home ROY and MVP hardware.
“In 2001, no one expected 200 hits from me,” he said. “If I’d had 168 hits, they’d have said ‘Good job.’ Now, in my shoes, it’s expected each year…I’m very happy to have made people feel that way.”
To continue to work hard, day-in and day-out, for a team that has averaged 74 wins over the past six seasons, and is currently sitting on 58 wins with 10 games left in the current one, only begins to scratch the surface of the dedication and preparation and mental fortitude that have formed the foundation for all the success Ichiro has earned.
A few fun facts.
This is the second-latest calendar date that Ichiro has gotten to 200. In the 2005 season, it took him until Sept. 30, 160 games deep. In terms of games played, this was the sixth fastest he’s gotten to 200.
Ichiro, who is currently ranked 162nd on the career hits list with 2,230, now has 64 games this year with two or more hits, the best in the Majors. He has 49 two-hit games, 13 three-hit games and one four-hit game. Unsurprisingly, he leads the league in hits, which he continues for 10 more games, would make it the fifth consecutive and seventh time overall he’s done so.
Ichiro has averaged 221 hits per season, and could potentially break the 3,000-hit HOF benchmark sometime after his 41st birthday. Ichiro has stated, half-jokingly, but also half-seriously, that he would like to continue to play until he’s 50.
Suzuki currently has 3,508 combined hits in the MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball.
Next year, if he remains healthy, Ichiro will most likely extend his record to 11 straight seasons of 200 hits, thus leaving Rose’s name completely out of the discussion.
After all, records are meant to be broken, and ironically enough, on the same day Ichiro broke his own American record with his 200th hit, an American broke into the Japanese record books by recording his 200th hit as well. Matt Murton, who played for the Colorado Rockies last year and is currently playing for the Hanshin Tigers, became only the fourth player in NPB history to record 200 hits.
With 10 games left in his season, he’s also on pace to break the all-time single season hits record of 210, set by, you guessed it, Ichiro.
A fun, though completely irelevant fact, Ichiro got to 210 in 1994 in only 130 games, while Murton took 134.
It will be interesting to see how things play out in the coming week for Murton’s chase of Ichiro’s record. At his current pace of 1.5 hits per game, Murton is on course for 216 hits.
The interesting part will be to see if Japanese pitchers will actually pitch to the guy anymore. History tells us that it’s a good possibility they might not.
Remember Japan’s home-run king Sadaharu Oh?
On three separate occasions over the last quarter century, a foreign player has tied Oh’s record of 55 long balls, only to face teams managed by Oh who refused to pitch to them.
And while he’s no longer managing, he continues to be a major influential figure in Japanese baseball.
Oh yeah, Oh is a huge Ichiro fan.
“He is a source of pride and courage for the Japanese people,” Oh said of Suzuki. “I’m sure he was under a lot of pressure but he never showed it.”
Murton’s teammate, and former teammate of Ichiro, Kenji Johjima was also in awe.
“He plays the whole year without getting injured,” Johjima said. “The way he prepares himself is incredible. The 200 hits are the result of all the work and technique over the years.”
Over a decade of play, Ichiro has achieved something that no other player has. His record of 10 straight 200-hit seasons stands alone, a testament to his ability to perfect and replicate his swing hundreds of thousands of times…over and over and over and over…