By Steve Silverman
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He spent most of his career in the Great Northwest, playing late at night for the Seattle Mariners. New York baseball fans slept through most of Ichiro Suzuki’s games or watched them with bleary eyes.
But as those games kept mounting, so did Ichiro Suzuki’s hit total in Major League Baseball. He became as consistent as a metronome, racking up at least 206 hits in every season from 2001 through 2010.
He came in with a bang in that first season in North America as he racked up 242 hits with a magnificent .350/.381/.457 slash line that foretold his brilliant career to come. That includes a two-plus season stint with the Yankees that ended in 2014.
There was a lot of skepticism regarding this Japanese phenom when he first became a major leaguer. Baseball is filled with conservatives who are hesitant to go outside the norm and give outsiders credit. But in addition to his ability to get his bat on the ball, Ichiro introduced himself to the baseball world with a play that he made early in his first season with the Mariners.
It was not a ball that he slashed to the left field corner or drove past the center fielder. It was a play that he made on defense as the Mariners played one of their late-night, West Coast games at the Oakland Coliseum against the A’s.
Ichiro had not even played 10 games in the majors when the Mariners went to Oakland in early April. Terrence Long was on first base and Ramon Hernandez was at the plate and he bounded a single to right field. The speedy Long took off with a good jump and sped around second.
Ichiro charged the ball, picked it up in his gloved hand and transferred it to his throwing hand. Long was almost halfway to third and appeared to have the base easily. But Ichiro uncorked a laser to third base and David Bell held out his glove as a target.
The ball flew into Bell’s glove and as he squeezed the ball, he moved his hand a few inches so he could tag the oncoming Long. Somehow, Ichiro had thrown Long out with as strong a throw as anyone had ever seen.
With one swing of his arm, Ichiro put himself in a category with Roberto Clemente, Dave Parker, Dwight Evans, Vladimir Guerrero, Jesse Barfield, Jose Guillen and Yoenis Cespedes. Those are the greatest outfield arms of the last 55 years, and Ichiro belonged with them.
Suddenly, he was not an outsider. Suddenly, Ichiro was on his way to becoming an all-time great player.
His slashing style at the plate may have looked more like the kind of swing that is found in a high-level women’s softball game, but that was due more to his inventiveness and desire to get on base and help his team than any weakness.
Ichiro quickly showed he could hit the ball in any manner he chose, but his normal left-field stroke was his best.
He became one of the best players in the majors, and a regular starter for the American League in the All-Star game. His 2007 inside-the-park homer in San Francisco was notable because as he crossed the plate he did not even have to slide. He sprinted around the bases with blazing speed and made it home with relative ease.
Now Ichiro has done the near-impossible. Playing for the Miami Marlins, he slashed the 4,257th hit of his professional career Wednesday night, and that gave him one more professional hit than Pete Rose. The large majority of those hits, 2,979 of them, have come in the Major Leagues. The remaining 1,278 came in his home country of Japan.
That’s a remarkable achievement, even if nearly 30 percent of those hits came in Japan’s equivalent of the majors.
Ichiro spent nine seasons playing his native country. He was the dominant player in the NPB, and had conquered all worlds across the Pacific before believing he was ready for the North American game.
Boy, was he ready. There is little doubt that Cooperstown will be calling when the 42-year-old is ready to hang up his spikes.
The issue at hand is whether he is baseball’s all-time hit king, the only post-career honor that the disgraced Rose has been able to hold onto over the decades since his banishment from the game.
The answer is that title still belongs to Rose.
But that does not diminish what Ichiro has done. He may not have been a true major leaguer prior to the 2001 season, but if he had been, he might have gone by Rose’s record by quite a margin.
The Japanese baseball season is 135 games as opposed to the 162 games that MLB teams play, meaning Ichiro would have been getting quite a few more hits over the 27 games he was missing every season.
Rose was a magnificent hitter over the length of his brilliant National League career, and while he ruined his overall legacy with his gambling and subsequent denials, his ability at the plate was brilliant. He drove the Big Red Machine in its best years, and his contributions will live forever.
Ichiro spent most of his time playing in Seattle and has never been to a World Series. He has not had the opportunity to perform under the brightest lights.
But he has passed every test he has been given and has piled up hits everywhere he has gone.
His greatness is undeniable and he deserves credit for his remarkable achievement, even if it doesn’t knock Rose off his pedestal.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy