On Wednesday, in the ninth inning of a sparsely attended getaway matinee at San Diego, Ichiro stepped up and rapped a double down the right field line, moving Giancarlo Stanton to third. Ichiro then stood on second base the holder of another record, albeit an unofficial one. Gray-haired, a bit weathered, but otherwise appearing for all the world like the same limber, catlike enigma he was 4,257 hits ago, the Marlins’ senior outfielder/interleague DH/bench player doffed his batting helmet and nodded with the same hint of solemnity and apparent desire to return to business that he’s displayed with every record he’s broken, and there have been many. You’re welcome to split hairs all you like, cling with arthritic digits to the go-go, vial-in-pocket exuberance of Pete Rose’s heyday and say, as Rose gaseously has, that Ichiro’s great and all but he’s sure as hell not the all-time hit leader, because he notched his first 1,278 in Japan which, sorry, ain’t no major league. We can have that debate, if you’re dead set on digging your heels in, or we can say that they’re different things, both impressive, and agree that the only loser here is the already besmirched respectability of Rose, a man clutching with deathlike desperation at the remaining tatters of his relevance. It’s hard to blame him, when everything’s weighed, but that doesn’t render his graceless reaction to all this any more becoming.
Meanwhile Ichiro remains an elegant figure amid inelegant times, quiet, rigorous, determined to the point of doggedness. Watching him these many years, it’s been apparent that, whether or not he possessed any more English than he was willing to publicly let on, he isn’t the sort to use language superfluously anyway. He would rather, then and now, just do his job. And he’s been doing that job flawlessly since 1992. Even if we cater to the purists and isolate only those things he’s done in the Major Leagues, we have to go back to the spring of 2001, a date which belongs to an historical epoch previous to our own. The world was different then, if only by a million disparate increments, recognizable at this remove, but subjectively alien to us in its lack of concerns. The twin towers yet stood, the War on Terror hadn’t begun to lurch into aimless, destructive motion, and the second Bush was mostly just the punchline to a joke which featured Al Gore in its set up. What I’m getting at is that the air we breathed had yet to be seeded with the paranoid existential dread to which we’ve all become accustomed. All that makes it even more beautiful to remember that summer, and what Ichiro did across it, and that he did it in the creased, leathery faces of those who were certain that the brilliance he displayed in the Pacific League simply wouldn’t translate. It did, and continues to do so now.
So yeah, longevity’s crucial. Like Rose (1963-1986), like Cobb (1905-1928), you don’t rack up 4,000+ hits without logging the time. But time alone’s not enough. The key is consistency across the years, a machine-like replication of excellence, repetition of all the little things beyond endurance to the point of complete absurdity. Among his Major League hit total, Ichiro has scattered 113 home runs, 91 triples, and 347 doubles, like the one which put him past Rose, but the overwhelming majority of his hits, going back even to his days in Japan, looked a lot like his first inning knock on Wednesday, the one that pulled him even; the man, possessed of a spindliness which belies his strength, slapping at the ball to have it dribble across the infield grass while he scampers safely through the bag at first. He’s done that reliably, over and over again, longer than his current team has been in existence. In sizing up the sheer scale of the accomplishment, cold numbers fall short; it takes a long view to appreciate it. You have to have seen the stoic perfection play out day after day, year after year.
We might describe the intensity with which he’s hunted down and overcome this particular number as impressive, but in a way we’d be missing the point; process is all, is Ichiro’s point, wordlessly conveyed but unmistakable just the same. It’s that commitment to process which makes it impossible to say just when he’ll top out his numbers and shuffle out of view. At 42 he’s still a viable concern for his employer; he currently holds a .349/.410/.807 line at an age when most players are a distinct liability, killing off a bad contract, or just kept around to husband the careers of younger players. He’ll reach 3,000 Major League hits this summer, but he might yet have years left to continue to turn over the odometer. We’re instinctively inclined to say that there’s no chance he can get to Rose’s total in the Majors alone, but then we’d do well to remember that this is Ichiro, and we really can’t predict anything where he’s concerned, because he is, in a lot of important ways, without precedent.
It’s worth remembering, in all the bluster that’s followed that Wednesday afternoon double, and all that’s likely to follow, that there are agendas in play here. Ichiro’s record is not “official” official, but MLB does seem to have some interest in promoting it, thereby further disavowing Rose, whom they’ve treated like a stubborn boil in need of a sharp prick ever since Bart Giamatti negotiated the lifetime ban, and then promptly expired. At the same time Rose and his staunch backers have at stake the preservation of a world they might continue to recognize, an era before the rampant internationalism represented by someone as unquestionably sui generis—which is to say not-American—as Ichiro Suzuki. It’s hard to let go of a world you so long knew and ruled.
The vagaries and ambiguities of statistical comparison which allowed some to claim that Maris didn’t actually best Ruth, and that Nolan Ryan can’t fairly be compared to Cy Young or Walter Johnson, can and will be invoked here. The numbers don’t lie, except when they do. That’s fine. We can make up a new name for the record, or hang an asterisk on it. This is the beauty of all of baseball’s imprecision, the sweet spot where cold calculation meets historical subjectivity and human sloppiness. We might call Rose the Major League record holder and Ichiro the Global Hit King. We can twist and explain, engage in semantics, drill down into the granular nubs of both sides of the argument, and still not arrive at anything resembling a consensus. I doubt Ichiro cares. He seems wholly unconcerned with how he might be used as cipher for the broader arguments of others. He’s too busy worrying instead about what he might control, namely hitting a baseball, and the rest of us would do well to shut up and enjoy that for as long as it might last.