Ichiro's pursuit of 4,000 hits forged by dedication
As he closes in on unique milestone, Yanks star, peers reflect on its significance
Even Ichiro Suzuki is not quite sure how to properly evaluate the milestone that he is quickly approaching, ticking off the necessary hits to reach 4,000 for his professional career.
Yet he and his peers recognize that it will be a historic, significant moment to appreciate. Ichiro entered play on Friday with 3,994 career hits, including the 1,278 he amassed during a sensational nine-year career in Japan.
Pete Rose (4,256) and Ty Cobb (4,191) are the only players in Major League history to reach 4,000, and while the stats are not exactly equivalent, Ichiro has already experienced some fanfare related to the upcoming accomplishment.
"Recently, I was on an elevator with a neighbor of mine that lives just a story down from me who I've never met, and they said, 'Hey, you're 11 away,'" Ichiro said through an interpreter. "I was caught off guard. It's not like I'm thinking about it. I didn't quite know exactly the number, but that's how it is."
Ichiro is in his 13th season in the Majors, considered a lock for enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and having long dispelled any doubts about Japanese position players succeeding in the big leagues.
After making his debut in 1992 at age 18 for the Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro was arguably the brightest star in Nippon Professional Baseball before getting the chance to make an immediate impact for the Mariners in 2001, leading the league with 242 hits and a .350 average.
The message was clear: You can only hit against the teams you play, and whether his opponent had been the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters or the Boston Red Sox, odds are that Ichiro would have been making life difficult for a pitcher somewhere.
"This is something, you don't have to be from Japan, you don't have to be a U.S. player, you don't have to be a Canadian player, a Dominican player," former Mariners teammate Ken Griffey Jr. said.
"You can just look and see how much time and effort and the things he's done to perfect his craft. This is something that three people will have done, to have 4,000 hits. Those are Bugs Bunny numbers."
The argument has been made that if Ichiro's NPB stats are considered, then perhaps Minor League statistics should also be credited in considering hit totals. But to do so just further highlights the select group Ichiro is about to join.
For the purposes of this exercise, only three additional players would then reach 4,000 professional hits: Hank Aaron (3,771 in Majors; 324 in Minors), Stan Musial (3,630 in Majors, 371 in Minors) and Jigger Statz, an outfielder who tallied 737 of his 4,093 pro hits with four big league teams from 1919-28.
"That's a lot of hits, man. It's pretty impressive," said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. "I don't care if it's 4,000 in Little League. It shows how consistent he's been throughout his career. It makes you look at how many hits he's got here [in the Majors] in a short amount of time. That's difficult to do, so Ichi has been as consistent as anyone."
Ichiro announced his arrival in the Majors by compiling 10 straight 200-hit seasons for the Mariners. Now in the latter stages of his career, he still owns at least 150 hits in each of his first 12 seasons, a feat accomplished only by Paul Waner, Richie Ashburn and Albert Pujols in the live ball era.
Ichiro points out that he hit for a higher batting average (.353) in Japan, but he amassed more hits per season in the Majors (he averaged 217 in his first 12 years). Part of that is because NPB teams play 135-game schedules, compared to 162 in the Majors.
"It's incredible," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "Of the few things that you could just really count on in this game, Ichiro getting 200 hits was one of them, almost like when Pete Rose was on that long streak [Rose had a 44-game hitting streak in 1978, when he totaled 198 hits].
"He's still running well, he's still putting the ball in play. He's getting his hits. I can't say it's been fun to watch, because a lot of them were at our expense. But there's no doubt he's a special player and a Hall of Famer."
Ichiro quips that one huge difference between the hurlers he faced in Japan and those he faces nightly in the Majors is that now he is forced to wait much longer between pitches. He acknowledged there may be a talent gap, but is unsure how to best gauge it.
"I think hitting is not easy," Ichiro said. "Even if you're facing a high school kid, you really have to try your best to get hits on them."
No matter the opponent, Jeter is not surprised that Ichiro has been so consistent. Having been teammates for more than a year now, Jeter said that he has been wowed by Ichiro's dedication to his craft.
"He never takes any days off. That's probably the most impressive thing," Jeter said. "Even on off-days he comes in here and he hits and he throws. I believe he was throwing in Central Park over the All-Star break. He does it every single day.
"He doesn't take any days off. He's always stretching, and you can see him in here from the time he gets here to the time he leaves; in the on-deck circle. He takes extremely good care of himself. He's on the field and he plays every day."
That's a good way to reach unthinkable milestones. Ichiro has made five offseason pilgrimages to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, relishing the opportunity to examine the equipment used by the players who came before him.
He has cradled a bat used by George Sisler, who held the Major League record of 257 hits before Ichiro shattered the mark with 262 hits in 2004, but still strikes a reverential tone when it is suggested that his name belongs alongside those of Rose and Cobb.
"Those guys that have done special things and played a long time, they have this aura about them that is special," Ichiro said. "I just don't feel like I should be in that group quite yet. It's also American and Japan stats together, so I think it's tough to put me in that same category as them."
Griffey is among those who gladly disagree. It may not dislodge the likes of Rose and Cobb from the record books, but Ichiro will soon hit a checkpoint that deserves attention and applause.
"It's still something that you can tip your hat to," Griffey said. "And watch, he's going to hit a home run [for his 4,000th hit]. I'm calling it."