During last Wednesday’s game against the San Diego Padres, Miami Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki had two hits, a dribbler of an infield single in the first inning and a searing line drive double in the ninth. Taking into account the 1,278 hits Ichiro collected in his nine years playing for the Orix Blue Wave of the Japan Pacific League (JPL) before coming to the United States, his single in the first tied Pete Rose’s record for most hits in a career (4,256), and his double in the ninth passed Rose. Furthermore, Ichiro now stands 21 hits away from 3,000 in his U.S. major league career, an accomplishment only 29 other players can boast.
Obviously, Major League Baseball (MLB) does not consider statistics from other leagues, so Ichiro’s record is not official, nor should it be. Rose stands as MLB’s career hits leader, as he should. But that does not take away from Ichiro’s stunning accomplishment. In fact, it could be argued that Ichiro’s career hit total is even more impressive than Rose’s, since the JPL’s season is shorter than MLB’s, and Ichiro averaged about 30 less games per year during his nine years in Japan than he has in the Major Leagues. The counter-argument, is, of course, that JPL is not on MLB’s level, an arguable point bolstered by Ichiro’s higher batting average while in Japan (.353) than in MLB (.314).
Patrick Redford, writing for Deadspin:
Whether or not NPB [Japanese] ball is as difficult as MLB, Ichiro needed about 1,500 fewer plate appearances than Rose to equal his record, so you could adjust Ichiro’s NPB numbers for inflation and still determine that the hit record is Ichiro’s.
There are plenty of quantitative arguments that support Ichiro as the greatest hitter of all time; he had 262 hits in 2004, the most ever; he had ten straight 200-hit seasons, and Rose had ten across his entire career; he grounded into exactly one double play in the 2009 season. Ichiro doesn’t have as many MLB hits as Pete Rose, but he is the best hitter of all time.
Arguing about the relative merits of Ichiro’s accomplishments versus Rose’s is fun, yet ultimately inconclusive. And, as stated, there is no doubt that Rose is, and should be, MLB’s all-time hits leader. The thing is, sometimes we can choose our heroes:
It has been reported that [Neil] Armstrong’s serene personality and low profile demeanor were among the reasons NASA selected him over his crewmate Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin to be the first man to step off the Lunar Module on that fateful July 20th. If this was indeed the case, history bears NASA's decision out as amazingly prescient, for Armstrong, who thus became the public face of the most important feat ever performed by human beings, handled his post-mission role with elegance, aplomb and self-deprecation.
Sometimes we can’t.
Pete Rose’s handling of his “post-mission” role has been catastrophic, and an unmitigated embarrassment to the sport.
Bud Poliquin, writing for Syracuse.com
Pete bet on baseball games when he knew how wrong that was. Pete lied. Pete didn't pay his taxes. Pete went to prison. Pete hung around with some really creepy people. Pete became a brazen huckster and all but a Main Street barker in Cooperstown every July.
It’s bitterly ironic that baseball’s hits “king” constantly brings dishonor to his sport.
The nature of Ichiro’s personality, on the other hand, is evident in his actions when he broke George Sisler’s MLB record for hits in a season in 2004. From Brad Lifton’s Seattle Times piece about a 2011 Japanese TV program in which Ichiro was interviewed (Pete Drochleman is George Sisler’s grandson):
In a recorded segment from his home in St. Louis, Drochleman acknowledged how the original misgivings he had that summer about Ichiro’s pursuit of Sisler’s 84-year-old record slowly turned to acceptance. By the time he arrived at Safeco Field, he had discovered Ichiro’s dedication and humility, qualities he felt his grandfather would have appreciated.
Once fearful his grandfather would be forgotten in the aftermath of Ichiro’s record, Drochleman now appreciates Ichiro for keeping his memory kindled. He knew that Ichiro took time to visit Sisler’s gravesite during the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis, but for the first time he was shown a photo of the moment. He got choked up seeing Ichiro in a posture very different than he had imagined.
“The fact that he’s kneeling down, saying a prayer maybe, that’s moving,” Drochleman said, fighting back tears. “Anytime my grandfather is remembered in any way, I’m overjoyed, and the fact that Ichiro would remember my grandfather says a lot for Ichiro.”
We can fruitlessly argue all night about who deserves the crown as baseball’s best hitter. But there’s no question about whose head it would better fit.