By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
On Sunday, Ichiro Suzuki did something never before seen in the 150 years that baseball has been played professionally. Not in the, “Did you see that throw from right field to third base?” sense, but rather in the truly historic sense.
To have nine consecutive seasons of 200 hits or more has never been done before and is not only a testament to elite skill, but also to superior preparation, unquenchable dedication and the uncanny ability to stay healthy.
Ichiro’s body of work has embodied all of this. From his 15 consecutive gold gloves (eight in the U.S.), to his nine career batting titles (two with the Mariners) to his MLB record 262-hit season to him being the second fastest player ever to 2,000 hits.
In my mind, there is no question that Ichiro has led a Hall of Fame career.
So where is all of the fanfare? Where is even half the love that Derek Jeter received for his breaking of Lou Gehrig’s Yankees hits record? No doubt a hallowed record for New Yorkers, but for the whole of baseball, nowhere near what Ichiro has done.
“In 2004, when I got 262 hits, my partner (wife Yumiko) gave me this necklace saying that nobody had ever broken the 9 consecutive seasons with 200 hits record,” Suzuki told Japanese reporters this past weekend. “Today, the number ‘9’ has a whole new meaning and significance for me.
In terms of difficulty, Ichiro’s “9” is pretty close to the top. Nothing will ever compare to Joe DiMaggio’s record 56-game hit streak, Ichiro has said as much himself. But in an era filled to the buttox with steroids, HGH, amphetamines and flaxseed oil, perhaps it’s time we look away from the juicy glamour of the homerun, and remember that in America’s pastime, failing seven out of 10 trips to the plate is considered excellent.
Meaning, Ichiro’s career failure rate of .666 percent and his 2,005 hits made up of only 85 long balls should be the subjects of much praise and recognition. Especially considering the enormity that one would think would come with a 108-year-old record falling.
Only, there isn’t any. Least not here in the States. Hardly a whisper. The Los Angeles Times ran a paragraph blurb. SportsCenter showed a ten-second clip of Ichiro waving to the crowd. Even Seattle seemed to be more caught up with the Huskies and Seahawks this weekend.
It is, after all, the middle of September. And mid-September signifies the literal kickoff to not only the NFL, but also the college football season, meaning that baseball has officially fallen off of most American sports fans’ radars until mid-October (if it shows up again at all this year).
Maybe Ichiro is just a week late. Perhaps when he visited Los Angeles to play the Angels was the more timely moment. Had he gone 5-14 instead of 1-14, things might have been different.
This weekend was pretty much the worst weekend for him to make history. Last week in Los Angeles against the AL West leading Angels, his feat would have been the major sports story. But this weekend? Much like the actual record-breaking hit itself, a grounder to short in which Suzuki beat out the throw (that never came), his other-worldly accomplishment was relegated to a mere footnote in the major papers, and a brief acknowledgement on television sports programs.
Thanks to a rain delay Friday night, Ichiro didn’t have to worry about competing against the induction into the basketball Hall of Fame of his Airness, the greatest (note, not necessarily best) basketball player of all time, the incomparable Michael Jordan, and, oh yeah, those other guys and gal, John Stockton, David Robinson, Jerry Sloan and C. Vivian Stringer.
And despite the Serena Williams’ F-bomb-laced tirade against a spectacled-wearing line judge during the U.S. Open and the heavily favored USC Trojans comeback against a very great Ohio State squad, Ichiro’s feat might still have found its way to the top stories of Saturday.
But Sunday? The first Sunday of the NFL season? A Sunday where Brett Favre threw his first touchdown pass in purple, where Drew Brees connected on six touchdown passes, where the 49ers upset last year’s Super Bowl second-place finishers, where Donavon McNabb cracked a rib, where Tony Romo looked even better without Terrell Owens, where the Giants defense looked like it was worth Eli’s contract more than Eli did.
And that’s just football.
Sunday also saw Raphael Nadal lose in straight sets and Roger Federer win on what he called, “the most amazing shot of his career.” A day where a mother (Kim Clijsters) won the U.S. Open as the first ever unseeded victor. It was a day that saw Tiger Woods wrap an iron shot around a tree and land within a few feet of the hole on his way to his 71st career PGA Tour victory. Hell, even Godzilla, New York’s Hideki Matsui, stole some of Suzuki’s thunder with a 5-RBI game including a monster 3-run homer.
And as if the weekend barrage of newsworthy sports moments weren’t enough, the President of the United States had to go and make a mostly brilliant speech Monday morning touting Wall Street changes on the infamous anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse to further obscure Ichiro’s accomplishment.
Of all the weekends to do the never-been-done, this was certainly not it.
But make no mistake, this accomplishment should prove to be yet another building block in the foundation for Ichiro’s enshrinement in Cooperstown.
Add this year’s 2,005 hits and counting to his 1,278 from Japan, and we have a soon-to-be 36-year-old man with nearly 3,300 career hits, a rookie of the year, an MVP, and two WBC championships.
Of course, detractors will point out that Japan is more like a Quadruple-A league then a Majors equivalent, and to a point, they are correct. Smaller stadiums mean greater perceived power and the ability for journeymen like Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera to go to Japan and challenge Sadaharu Oh’s single season 55-homerun record.
But while power fluctuates greatly between the two leagues (for example, my boy Kazuo Matsui was averaging 29 homers his last four years in Japan, and didn’t even total that number in his first five years in the Majors) it remains true that batting average translates much better when crossing over the Pacific.
Hideki Matsui had a .299 career average in Japan and has a .291 average in America. Akinori Iwamura had a .296 average in Japan and has a .281 average in America. Pretty boy Tsuyoshi Shinjo, more well known for his frosted hair and impeccable outfits then for anything baseball related, hit .248 in Japan and .233 in the States. Good has remained good, crap has, well, you get the point.
Bottom line, it’s just as hard to hit a baseball in Japan as it is in America.
That being said, even if we discard the nearly 1,300 hits Ichiro accumulated in Japan, there is no question that #51 should be inducted into the Hall of Fame when his playing days come to a close.
His career accomplishments speak for themselves. The all-time single season hits record holder. Rookie of the year. MVP. Eight-time gold glove winner. 28th all time in career average. 339 stolen bases. His “9”…a number that will most likely continue to grow.
With the way he keeps his body in shape and the nature of his game, he could potentially play for another five years and break 3,000 hits here in the States and set an untouchable record of 12, 13, 14 consecutive 200-hit seasons. I mean, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who was arguably the best contact hitter of the past 30 years, played until he was 41 and hit .321 that final season. And we all know how well he took care of his balloon-shaped frame. Case in point, Gwynn never played 160 games in a season.
Before this year, Ichiro had only missed three games over the past five .
Over 20 seasons and 2,440 games, Gwynn amassed 3,141 hits, 319 steals and a lifetime .338 average. HOF George Sisler, the former single-season hits record holder, has 2,812 career hits, with 375 stolen bases and a career .340 batting average, all of which were accomplished before 1930. But it took him 15 years and 2,055 games to do so. Hall of Famer Willie Keeler, the man who previously shared the record with Ichiro of 8 consecutive 200 hit seasons, played during the Deadball Era and amassed 2,932 career hits and a lifetime batting average of .341 over 2,123 games and 19 seasons. Wade Boggs, also in the Hall of Fame, had seven consecutive 200 hit seasons, a career .328 average, and 3,010 hits in 2,439 games.
Ichiro’s only played in 1,400 games, four seasons less than Keeler and Sisler and nearly 6 ½ less than Gwynn and Boggs. At his current 225 hits-per-season production, he’d surpass all of them given the same amount of games.
Of course, that’s all hypothetical. Part of the brilliance of what Ichiro has accomplished is that playing games is never guaranteed (just ask Mark Prior). To be that consistent, that healthy, and that damn good for so long is extraordinary in and of itself. Injuries happen. Slumps happen. Life happens.
But seeing as how baseball has been forever changed by steroids, when the length of one’s career was for nearly three decades artificially elongated, isn’t it time we start looking at quality over quantity?
If you look at the quality of what Ichiro has done, the .333 average, the 225 hits, 110 runs and 40 stolen bases-per-season, the overall excellence in every aspect of his game including that sparkling .993 fielding percentage, it’s clear that Ichiro should be considered one of the best to ever take the field.
But I’m getting too far ahead of the storyline. After all, his induction into Cooperstown is still many years away.
In the meantime, in the immediacy of now, we can sit back and simply enjoy watching history unfold.
And while America isn’t making a lot of noise, we can look to the vibrance and excitement of Japan.
From blogs to online to print, the Japanese media is afire with his accomplishments. Mass circulation newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun printed a special edition with the headline “Ichiro Breaks Major League Record.”
The common populace has spoken its mind.
“Ichiro gives everyone in Japan something to feel proud about,” said Tokyo office worker Masahiro Koga. “He is the ultimate professional.”
Peers are gushing.
“As a pitcher, it’s hard for me to imagine what he’s gone through,” said Rakuten Eagles pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, a teammate of Suzuki’s on the WBC team. “200 hits in nine seasons is an incredible number and I hope he shoots for 10.”
All time great ballplayers are heaping on the praise.
Former Yomiuri Giants great Shigeo Nagashima, dubbed “Mr. Giants” in Japan, said Suzuki’s accomplishments will inspire Japanese youth to pursue their dreams of playing in the major leagues. “I hope he keeps aiming to break more records to inspire young players in Japan.”
“Sometimes we forget how difficult it is to accomplish these things amid a baseball schedule which is much tougher in the U.S. than in Japan,” said Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh. “It’s hard to find the words to describe what he has accomplished.”
America is at a loss for words, whether because they remain apathetic to non-American ball players or because “9” is a difficult feat, but not a glamorous one.
Maybe 10 will be the magic number to get the American media buzzing. Maybe Ichiro can borrow Phil Jackson’s hat since he’ll be needing a “XI” next year. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
From those of us Americans paying attention, a hearty congratulations Ichiro. Hall of Fame or not, Ichiro has come to represent the heights that Asian athletes can attain through hard work and discipline.
While I am sure he will eventually make Cooperstown as the first, hopefully he won’t be the last.
Jordan Ikeda is the Rafu Shimpo Sports Editor. He can be contacted at [email protected]. The ideas and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo.