Ichiro's feat astounding, but Rose rules hit parade
With 4,256 hits in Majors, all-time grinder deserves renewed recognition
By Richard Justice
We have been blessed to watch Ichiro Suzuki play baseball in this country for the past 16 seasons, and isn't that what this milestone ought to be about? Rather than getting caught up in comparing him to this guy or that one, let's simply enjoy what an amazing career we've witnessed.
Funny how things turn out. In Wednesday afternoon's 6-3 Marlins loss to the Padres, Ichiro recorded two hits to lift his total between Japan and Major League Baseball past Pete Rose's all-time MLB record of 4,256. But when Ichiro finished up his first Spring Training with the Mariners in 2001, plenty of baseball people didn't think he would make it in Major League Baseball.
They said Ichiro lacked the size and strength to succeed and that the velocity of Major League pitching would overwhelm him.
All Ichiro did that first season was put together one of the greatest years any player has had. He had at-bats that almost defied description. Ichiro's hands were so quick, his instincts so keen, that pitchers simply could not put him away.
Ichiro fought off pitch after pitch, so much so that teammates could not tell if he was battling to keep the at-bat going or if he was intentionally swatting away pitches until he found one to his liking.
"It's always tough, because you never knew what he was trying to do," said Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia, who has been both a teammate and an opposing pitcher trying to get Ichiro out.
Like Ted Williams, Wade Boggs and very few others, Ichiro was comfortable hitting with two strikes. It was like he controlled every at-bat regardless of the pitcher or the count.
As Alex Rodriguez, one of Ichiro's former teammates, said, "You look at him in batting practice, and he can hit 20 balls into the upper deck in right-center, much like Wade Boggs. Then, in a game, he could just pepper the left-field line. He would pick and choose his times late in the game when he could change the game with one swing of the bat."
Ichiro introduced himself to the United States by leading the Majors with a .350 batting average and 242 hits in 2001. He won the American League Rookie of the Year Award at 27 and also the AL Most Valuable Player Award as the Mariners tied a big league record with 116 regular-season wins.
Ichiro would go on to win two batting championships and lead the Majors in hits seven times. He's a 10-time All-Star and has won 10 Gold Glove Awards, thanks to a string of breathtaking plays in right field. Some of his throws reminded old-timers of Roberto Clemente.
Ichiro's teammates spoke admiringly of his preparation and his focus. They marveled at his pregame routines -- stretching and swing drills and things American players had seldom done.
They speak of Ichiro's sense of humor, his smarts and his ability to fit in. To a man, they respect him and like him.
This is Ichiro's legacy. This is enough.
This 16th season has been an unexpected joy because, at 42, Ichiro seems reborn in hitting .349 for the Marlins.
Now about Rose. He is the Hit King.
Look, these are fun games to play, to combine Ichiro's Japanese (1,278) and American (2,979) hits totals and run them alongside Rose's.
These discussions are part of why we love baseball. Numbers can be interpreted, dissected, turned this way and that. In the end, though, there's Rose, and there's everyone else.
Rose played his entire career against the best players in the world. He proved himself over and over for 24 seasons.
Nothing against Ichiro, but his career has to be viewed in a different light. Fine for talk-show fodder, not reality.
Rose finished with 67 more hits than Ty Cobb, the second-most-prolific hitter of all time. Hank Aaron is next at 3,771 -- 485 behind Rose.
No active player is within 1,000 hits of Rose. Alex Rodriguez is the closest at 3,098, and he would be the first to say he has no chance of catching Rose.
Ichiro's 4,256th and 4,257th hits allow us to review Rose's 24-season career without focusing on his sins and lies regarding gambling. Rose led the Majors in hits seven times. In his first 17 seasons, he averaged 198 hits.
Rose's approach wasn't all that different from Ichiro's. He had lightning-quick hands in getting the bat through the hitting zone.
But Rose also had a tenacity and a cockiness that surely was part of his success. He had more physical skills than most players, but he also had a relentless belief that he was better than the opposing pitcher.
To be sure, Rose could have handled Ichiro's milestone with more grace.
"It sounds like in Japan,'' Rose told USA TODAY Sports, "they're trying to make me the Hit Queen. 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."
Hey, Pete: Take the high road on this one. Call if you need directions.
Rose's focus was almost scary. During his 44-game hitting streak in 1978, he would chat up the growing throng of reporters until game time, then stroll to home plate, block out everything else and focus on the pitcher.
On the day in 1984 that he collected his 4,000th hit, Rose sat in the home dugout in Montreal talking to reporters until, literally, police officers had to throw out the media so the game could start. In the bottom of the fourth inning, he almost routinely slapped a double to right field for No. 4,000.
Rose's gifts as a baseball player have gotten tangled up in his gambling addiction, making it easy to overlook how great of a player he was. That's sad on so many levels. Ichiro has been a great player, a fascinating player. But Pete Rose is the Hit King.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.