Ichiro Suzuki is the New Hit King

Greatness is something that should be appreciated when it happens, and a player joining the 3,000 hit club is greatness. Although there are MLB players with more hits than Ichiro Suzuki, Dave McCullough explains why he is the new hit king and puts his career in perspective using the legend’s own words.

Pete Rose, before he was a disgraced cheater, was a pretty darned good ballplayer. He was exceptional at putting the bat on the ball and hustling all over the field – skills that led him to the top of the all-time leaderboard in hits.

“In baseball, even the best hitters fail seven of ten times, and of those seven failures there are different reasons why. Some are personal failures, others are losses to the pitcher. You just get beat. In those personal failures, I felt I could have done better.” – Source: Baseball Digest (November 2002 Issue)

Officially, as of Sunday, August 7th, Ichiro Suzuki became the 30th player in major league history to record 3,000 hits. Ichiro’s incredible hand-eye coordination and blazing speed have allowed him to reach this statistical milestone in just 16 major league seasons. But Ichiro also played nine seasons in Japan – where he amassed 1,278 hits. Add them together and baseball has a new all-time Hit King.

Rose’s record is 4,256 (Ty Cobb’s original mark was 4,191, it is now 4,189) – Ichiro now has 4,278 professional hits. Both Rose and Cobb played 24 seasons in the majors; Ichiro is currently in his 25th professional season. But despite the recent spate of high profile retirements, Ichiro is on-record as having no intention of calling it quits quite yet:

Q: When do you think you will retire?

A: I want to keep playing until I am at least 50.

Ichiro has set – and will keep adding to – the professional baseball record for hits. MLB purists are probably fuming, but no, I’m not suggesting Ichiro displace Rose (or Cobb, depending on how strict your purity test is) atop the official Major League Baseball record lists. MLB records are necessarily different than professional baseball records. No one, not even Ichiro, argues that Japanese League baseball is the equal to Major League Baseball. The statistics compiled in the J-League are comparable to those compiled by AAA minor league players. No one is arguing that Chris Marerro’s minor league stats should be considered equal to anyone’s big league stats. So put down your pitchforks, purists.

But what Ichiro has done is an accomplishment worth celebrating, and recognizing. Ichiro was by far the best player in the J-League and won an MVP (and Rookie of the Year) in his MLB debut season. He owns the single-season record for hits, having stroked 262 in 2004. He had more than 200 hits in each of his first ten MLB seasons. He made his big league debut at age 27; Cobb had 1,600 of his hits before age 27. Rose had 899. Ichiro’s 1,278 before age 27 in the J-League is a reasonable number, even if they came against somewhat lesser competition.

“I’m anxious to face them (major league pitchers) all, but in reality I’m looking forward most to (Boston’s) Pedro Martinez. He was with the major league team that came to Japan in 1996, just before he became a superstar. I’m anxious to see how much he’s improved. And I’m anxious to see how much I’ve improved against him.” Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer Report (February 21, 2000)

Ichiro, the modern Hit King, is a marvel. His ability to put his bat on the ball is special; in his prime he was among the most frightening hitters in the game. The tales about his batting practice exploits (video) are the stuff of legend. He might be the best “quote” of any major league player in his era; his thoughts on Cleveland are definitive. He is among the select group of iconic players that fans bought tickets just so they could see him play; not only is he a wizard with the bat, but also on defense. This is the stuff dreams are made of:

Ichiro might be the coolest player of his generation. A baseball fan can look at Ichiro in silhouette and know his batting stance, his whip-crack thin frame, his intense focus at the plate – he is a fundamental treasure trove for coaches and fans alike. Want to do it “the right way”? Do it like Ichiro. Run hard out of the box on contact. Charge every ground ball. Plant-and-release your throw with your hips pointed at the target. Give the same effort up 10 runs as down 10.

“I’m not a big guy and hopefully kids could look at me and see that I’m not muscular and not physically imposing, that I’m just a regular guy. So if somebody with a regular body can get into the record books, kids can look at that. That would make me happy.” Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer Report (August 14, 2004)

For fans of a certain vintage, Rose was the ultimate ballplayer. Aaron was a better hitter, Koufax might have been the most dominant player ever – but Rose was the paragon of competitiveness, of effort, of hustle. For a generation of fans, Rose showed how to play the game the right way. Rose was a deserving Hit King because he played everyday, with the same intensity. Which makes his betrayal and downfall with fans even harder – but I digress.

Ichiro is the ultimate ballplayer. He was brilliant in the field – seriously, go watch that video again – and soon, he is the best ever (sorry Mr. Cobb) at putting his bat on the ball. He was a metronome of consistency and professionalism.  For the past quarter century, baseball fans in Japan and America have been blessed to watch Ichiro Suzuki play baseball. According to Ichiro, we’ll be watching him for a few more years yet – I hope so. I want to pay to see him play one more time, in person. There’s no one quite like the Hit King.

“I didn’t know I hit that way (.625 with runners in scoring position). Maybe not knowing is my secret. If I chased numbers, maybe I wouldn’t have as good results.” Source: Seattle Times (May 16, 2001)

P.S. Four years from now, Japan will host the Olympics and baseball is scheduled to return to the Games. Is there any doubt about who will light the flame as a symbol of the spirit of what is best about sporting competition? It’ll be the Hit King, Ichiro Suzuki – and boy, has he earned it. All hail the Hit King!


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Quotes from Baseball Almanac

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