By Brent Stecker
Ichiro picked up his 4,000th hit as a professional baseball player on Wednesday night, but the feat has set off a contentious debate about what it really means for the former Mariners great and current Yankee.
Of his now 4,001 career hits (through Thursday), only 2,723 have come in the Major Leagues, with the remaining 1,278 stemming from his days in Japan. And that’s where the debate starts – do Ichiro’s hits in Japan mean as much as his MLB hits?
The opinions are nearly split down the middle.
“It’s a big deal for a day,” Dave Grosby of “Bob and Groz” said Wednesday. “It’s something that they celebrated (Wednesday) night, it’s something fans here can feel good about because they saw most of those hits in a Mariner uniform, but it’s not something that’s going to be celebrated in every ballpark he goes to.”
Danny O’Neil of “Brock and Danny” doesn’t feel the same way.
“I’m pretty adamant about it (being) a remarkable accomplishment,” he said. “What he accomplished here can’t be minimized. Now you have to keep it in perspective, he is a limited hitter in terms of his power numbers, and he was not a great on-base percentage player, (but) he was simply one of the most prolific singles hitters the game has ever seen, and that’s remarkable.
“Is he going to go down as the greatest hitter ever, someone like Pete Rose? I don’t know, but 4,000 hits is significant, and it’s remarkable, and we got to see most of them here, and I think it’s a nice moment and you tip your cap.”
Mariners manager Eric Wedge, who was Ichiro’s skipper in 2011 and 2012, was pretty cut-and-dry with his take when he joined “Brock and Danny.”
“No,” Wedge said when asked if 4,000 professional hits means the same as 4,000 MLB hits. “He has 2,700 hits. I think he has 4,000 professional hits, but I think you have to cut it up. It’s a great accomplishment, but it’s not 4,000 hits in the big leagues.”
On the same show, Brock Huard said he can’t put Ichiro in the same class as Rose and Ty Cobb, the only other members of the 4,000-hit club.
“I think it’s a disservice to those that have played in the league and grinded in the league in a 162-game season, in this game, with these pitchers and this style … to say, ‘Hey, it’s 4,000 hits just the same way that Pete and Ty had 4,000 hits,'” Huard said. “Everybody that has been to professional baseball (games)in Japan tells me it’s a different game from Major League Baseball. It’s a great game, it’s a fantastic game, their fans are awesome, and obviously his time getting seasoned in that league got him prepared and ready to come in and win Rookie of the Year (in 2001) and light this league on fire.”
ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian, who has seen his share of Japanese baseball, gave Ichiro more credit on ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning.”
“Well it’s pretty darn good when you consider it’s Pete Rose, it’s Ty Cobb and it’s Ichiro, and that’s the list,” Kurkjian said. “To underestimate the way they play in Japan is a mistake, because they play a really good brand of baseball over there. It’s not U.S. baseball, it’s not the Major Leagues, but it’s not that far behind, so to just wipe away 1,300 hits just isn’t the right thing to do.
Kurkjian also stressed how dominant Ichiro has been in his time in the MLB.
“When you consider what he’s done in this country, (he has) more career hits than Lou Gehrig, he’s got almost 400 more hits than any other player in the Major Leagues since he came to the Major Leagues, and he’s got the most hits, according to the Elias, of any player over any 13-year period in baseball history,” Kurkjian said. “All of that suggests that we should celebrate this, because even though it’s not the standard 4,000 hits (like) Rose and Cobb, it’s still 4,000 hits. And as (Yankees manager) Joe Girardi has said, ‘No matter where you get 4,000 hits, that’s a lot of hits.'”
The one thing everybody can agree on is that if Ichiro gets to the 3,000-hit mark in America, that will be the accomplishment that really cements his legacy.
“I think it’s going to be a greater accomplishment for Ichiro – and I do believe he’ll get this – is when he gets his 3,000 hits here in the States, then you couple with what he did in Japan, I think it’s gonna mean that much more then,” Wedge said.
“I agree with Eric in that sense, that it will be a bigger deal when he hits 3,000,” said “Bob and Groz” co-host Bob Stelton. “I get the sense that that’s a very important record to him. I think it’s something he wants to achieve, even if he becomes a part-time player, even if he becomes a platoon player.”
But there’s no guarantee that Ichiro, who is 39 and has been playing pro ball for 21 years, will get to that milestone, as ESPN senior writer Jim Caple said on “Bob and Groz.”
“It’s gonna be really tough. He is slowing down. I think he will certainly be driven to do it, (but) it’s a matter of whether there’s a team willing to keep him around,” Caple said. “His on-base percentage this year is just barely over .300. As we watched here in Seattle, we saw as he got slower, his game become a little more limited. I think it’s gonna be close. That would be an amazing accomplishment for him to get that, but it’s gonna be difficult.”