Awhile back, Game 7 of the 1960 World Series was on MLB Network, having been found in an old wine cellar that had once belonged to Bing Crosby, who owned the Pirates at the time. And while, of course, it was one of the greatest games of all time in it’s own right, and had perhaps the greatest home run of all time in Bill Mazeroski‘s walk-off blast, what fascinated me was Roberto Clemente. I heard about how great Clemente was, I could see the old footage, but this was the first time I could see Clemente in a taped television broadcast since his death, as far as I knew.
And a weird thing happened: whenever he came up to the plate or a ball came towards him in the outfield, my eyes could not leave the television. Despite the fact the game had happened decades ago, despite the fact he only went one for four in the game… I could not take my eyes off the television. Because, well, I just knew there was a possibility he’d do something amazing (I hadn’t checked the box score before watching the broadcast, so I really only knew the broad strokes of the game).
To me, Ichiro Suzuki, the man who goes by only his first name, is the closest thing we have had in our lifetime to that sort of player. The player who’s talent is so great that you want to watch the TV not just when he’s at the plate, but when he’s about to make a fielding play as well, or on the basepaths. Oh, he’s left-handed (although naturally a righty, he bats lefty as a way of getting that slight head-start of running to first), and he’s Japanese and not Puerto Rican, but in most other ways the comparison fits: Ichiro, like Clemente, isn’t much of a power hitter (Ichiro averages about nine homers every 162 games while Clemente averaged about 16) but can definitely hit one when needed. Ichiro, like Clemente, has a cannon from the outfield that can stun even the fastest of runners. Ichiro, like Clemente, can make excellent catches in the outfield. And, finally, Ichiro, like Clemente, is a large case of “what if?”
For Clemente, it is a a tragic what-if of what may have happened had he not died that Christmas off the coast of Puerto Rico. For Ichiro, it is a bit more benign: what if he had played in Major League Baseball from the start?
As Ichiro got his 4000th combined hit yesterday, and in the run-up to it, some poo-poo’d him, saying that the 1,278 he had in Japan were meaningless, and that if we were to count them in any way we might as well count minor league statistics, or postseason statistics, or spring training statistics. This is ignorant of both the quality of the NPB (which, while not of MLB quality, is still better than even the best of AAA) and how dominant Ichiro was there (Jeff Passan notes that sabermetric wiz Clay Davenport found that Ichiro’s stats in Japan don’t translate downward that much when converted to MLB), as well as just how hard it is to get 4,000 hits in any league or combination of leagues.
In fact, as far as I can find, only seven players with good verifiable statistics have had 4,000 professional hits including every level: Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Jigger Statz*, Minnie Minoso, Stan Musial and now Ichiro. Regardless of league, evel of competition or era, the fact that only seven players out of the thousands upon thousands of professional players in North America, Latin America, Asia, Australia and Europe have had 4,000 professional hits is proof of just how hard it is and how impressive it is that Ichiro has done so.
And, even if you want to totally ignore the Japanese hits, your forgetting the fact that with his hit yesterday, he passed Lou Gehrig (another player with a large “what-if”) on the all-time MLB hit list. And that, on it’s own, is impressive.
So, congratulations Ichiro.
*Statz got most of those in the minor leagues, where he was a constant presence for the Los Angeles Angels for years.