By Kalama Hines
It was a Saturday afternoon in St. Louis. If not for the numbers involved, it would have been nothing new – modus operandi.
With a liner between the second and first basemen, like countless times before, Ichiro Suzuki collected another single, and the “Ichi-Meter” reached a count only one player ever had before.
The fifth-inning single during an August 15 Miami Marlins’ 6-2 loss to the Cardinals, the veteran outfielder tallied professional hit number 4,192. With it, Ichiro passed the great Ty Cobb on the hit list, leaving him behind only Pete Rose, yet the ovation was a muffled one.
The reason being, 1,278 of those hits came in the nine seasons the 41-year old spent with the Orix BlueWave of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. Thus, the 10-time MLB all star has accrued a still impressive, just drastically less so, 2,923 hits as an American major leaguer.
Less than one hundred away from the magical number 3,000, the 2001 AL MVP and Rookie of the Year is just ahead of former San Francisco Giant Omar Vizquel (2,877) on the all-time list. He is also within striking distance of Bay Area legends Barry Bonds (2,935) and Rickey Henderson (3,055).
When his baseball career comes to an end, it will certainly culminate with a call to Cooperstown, N.Y. and the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. But his place in history will be nowhere near commensurate with his career performance.
Sure, nearly one-third of his career *professional* hits came in Japan – in a league many baseball historians deem a lower level of competition in comparison with the American major leagues. But the truth is, the NPB has produced more successful pitchers than hitters – Yu Darvish, Hideo Nomo and Hisashi Iwakuma who in the same week as Ichiro’s historic hit weaved a no-hitter, just to name a few.
The Japanese league has also produced a national team more than just competitive in the ranks of international baseball. After all, the Japanese National Team has won two (2006, 2009) of the first three World Baseball Classics, and finished second the Olympics Games (1996).
The road to his 2,923 hits “that count” began when Ichiro signed with the Seattle Mariners in 2001. As the 27-year-old Ichiro took his first batting practice swings, looking on was all stars Edgar Martinez, Mike Cameron and Brett Boone as well as skipper Lou Piniella.
According to Piniella, chuckles broke out as the greenhorn seemed to be late on even BP fastballs, slapping pitch after pitch the opposite way. As the manager interceded, he asked to see his new right fielder pull a few pitches with whatever authority he could muster.
Ichiro proceeded to launch the next three pitches into the right field bleachers.
Needless to say, he would cease to be the butt of any jokes from that day forward.
And the Bay Area will be forever etched in the highlight reel of the future hall of famer.
Oakland Athletics fans will remember Terrence Long being gunned down by “something out of Star Wars” when he tried take an extra base on the right fielder.
San Francisco Giants fans will recall, during the 2007 all-star game at AT&T Park, Ichiro launching a Chris Young fastball into triples alley. The Mariner arrived at home with a stand-up inside-the-park homerun – the first such achievement in the game’s history.
With his career winding down, the man some call “Wizard” does not just belong in the ranks of MLB star, he is without a doubt one of the all-time greats and a true treasure in baseball lore.