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Sometime in the next week or so, Ichiro Suzuki will stroke his 4,000th hit as a professional baseball player. Thanks to our romance with round numbers, this is considered something of a big deal. Ichiro, always different, whether in his batting stance, his sartorial choices or his marvelous way with words, tends not to think this way.
“Every hit is a gift,” he told me in a 2005 interview, and he wasn’t being flip or dismissive. One of the wonders of Ichiro, who himself is one of the wonders of modern baseball, is how the art of hitting means more to him than the numbers themselves. About six months before we spoke, he had broken George Sisler’s single-season record by lashing an inconceivable 262 hits. The entire episode left him nonplussed. He didn’t celebrate. “It was more just, ‘OK,’ ” he said.
To Ichiro, his latest hit, No. 3,994, served more as a reminder that he is getting closer to the end of a career with a finite number of hits in it than to an arbitrary number deemed important because it is less crooked than the rest. He will leave the reveling to others, thank you, and others gladly will partake of it. Hell, some hope they’re directly involved.
“I want him to get the 4,000th hit off me,” Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara said. “I’ll throw it down the middle. That way I can leave my name in history.”
Uehara was joking, of course. Well, for the most part. He’s not going to groove Ichiro a fastball like Chan Ho Park did Cal Ripken in the 2001 All-Star game. But Uehara could face Ichiro this weekend, as the Red Sox host the New York Yankees, and five times this season Ichiro has logged six hits over a series of three games. And the mere possibility of one Japanese ballplayer intertwining himself with perhaps the greatest the country ever produced legitimately excited Uehara, even if he is just one year younger than Ichiro, more a contemporary than a minion.
“He’s practically God,” Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa said.
Almost every Japanese baseball fan sees Ichiro with that combination of respect, admiration and reverence. From spirit to skills, Ichiro is the archetypal Japanese baseball player, someone who through hard work, repetition and intelligence maximized his physical skills and amalgamated them into what we still see even as he approaches his 40th birthday: A lithe machine built to hit singles, which he’s got more of (2,203) in MLB than all but 16 players – each of whom played at least five years longer in the major leagues than him.
With most, there is little grandeur in the base hit. Ichiro made the single seem much cooler and more productive than it actually was. He always wasn’t overrated or overpaid inasmuch as he was glorified for the wrong reasons. His all-around game – the wizardry in right field, the deftness on the basepaths – was almost as great as his ability to poke base hits to every part of the field. It’s just that a .331 batting average, as Ichiro had in the big leagues through 2010, looks as pretty as it sounds.
Over the last three seasons, it has dipped to .320. His legs have dragged, his infield hits lagged, his power sagged, and he isn’t even a league-average hitter anymore. He’s got nine three-hit games this season; he had 34 in 2004. Though friends believed Ichiro would play well into his 40s, barring a turnaround 2014, his productivity may keep him from regular at-bats, and that marginalization may send him home.
If indeed Ichiro falls short of Pete Rose’s record of 4,256 hits, he’ll have made a valiant effort that in no way should be minimized by where the first 1,278 hits came. Any scoffing at Ichiro’s numbers with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan is just ignorant. Scouts and statisticians believe Ichiro would have been every bit the player he was here as he was in Japan. One of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, Clay Davenport, developed a system to translate numbers from both the minor leagues and foreign leagues with major league equivalencies. In his final seven seasons in Japan, Ichiro finished with 1,242 hits. Had Ichiro been in the major leagues, according to Davenport’s peak-adjusted translations, he would have had 1,240 hits.
Ichiro’s defection to MLB was a touchstone moment for Japanese baseball. While Hideo Nomo had dominated, no position player from Japan had proven himself even mediocre. For Ichiro to win the American League MVP in his rookie season and continue on for another dozen years with huge fits of success and infrequent failures only emboldened Uehara and Tazawa and Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda and many more to come here and star without losing their identity.
Inside Tokyo Dome, the largest baseball stadium in Japan, Ichiro smiles down on the field from a Kirin Beer billboard. He is in print ads, on TV, sought after by products old and new, his appeal massive. What Peyton Manning is here, a peerless sporting pitchman, Ichiro plays in Japan. Someday he’ll head back there and do whatever he wants. Manage a team? Sure. Run for office? If he so desires. Sit back and appreciate what he accomplished? Absolutely. Japan is Ichiro’s oyster, bigeye tuna and fugu.
For now, he’s got a year and $6.5 million left on his deal with the Yankees, a year to pile up more hits and figure out what’s next. He’ll travel with his temperature-controlled bats, follow his painstaking routine and continue the quest to perfect his craft. The hoopla around the numbers takes away from that aspect of Ichiro, which, if anything, is underrated. He set out early in his career to become the most disciplined and accomplished purveyor of base hits he could be. He was speed over size, finesse over power, brain over brute. Not all of those are mutually exclusive. He chose for them to be because that’s how he would be at his best.
Whether it was a seeing-eye single or a double down the line, an infield single thanks to pure speed or a triple because of the same, a broken-bat looper or whip-crack home run, the hits were special when taken individually. In Ichiro’s mind, they form no tapestry when woven together, create no tableau of his career. They’re just singular gifts, the first 3,994 every bit as meaningful as the next six.
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