Pete Rose has cast himself once again in a familiar role: As cantankerous and bitter, playing Angry Old Man in begrudging the Marlins’ Ichiro Suzuki his milestone accomplishment. I sort of get it. Rose, 75, is only protecting what’s his and what’s left — the one major plank of his legacy that is untarnished and undisputed. He is the Hit King. Nobody in the history of Major League Baseball has topped his 4,256 hits, and it is a record that appears unassailable. When the game you love has ostracized you with a life sentence for gambling, when you are resigned to never being voted into the Hall of Fame that otherwise would have welcomed you as royalty, you hang onto what you can.
“The next thing you know,” groused Rose in an interview about Ichiro this week, “they’ll be counting his high school hits.”
You know how athletes annoyingly like to say of an accomplishment, “Nobody can take that away from me” … even though nobody is trying to? That is sort of what’s happening here.
Ichiro is not on the cusp of breaking Rose’s record and nobody is claiming that. But he is about to surpass Rose’s career total if you include Ichiro’s hits collected in Japan before he came to America in 2001, and that’s a notable achievement on its own. There is no arguing Rose remains the Hit King because MLB is king of that sport. But what Ichiro is accomplishing is understandably being celebrated in Japan and should not be ignored stateside, either. The Marlins undoubtedly will honor Ichiro’s career achievement during the homestand that begins Friday against Colorado, and should.
After Wednsday’s first-inning single and ninth-inning double, Ichiro had 2,979 MLB hits in a career still flourishing in Miami at age 42. He had 1,278 in Japan. That combined total of 4,257 leaves him one ahead of Rose’s total. Not his record, but his total.
That there might be any controversy at all about this takes me back to when Dan Marino retired from the Dolphins after the 1999 season. He left owning the NFL record for career passing yards with 61,361. But it wasn’t the professional football record, because Warren Moon at that time had 64,905 yards if you included his totals from the Canadian Football League with his 49,325 NFL yards. There was no disputing Marino retired as the passing yards king because the NFL is king of that sport. Nobody outside of Moon’s immediate family or maybe Edmonton Eskimos fans might have dared claim otherwise. Still, that Moon had a greater career total wasn’t nothing. It was an accomplishment to be proud of.
The two situations are analogous because the Japan League is to MLB what the CFL is to the NFL.
Canadian pro football is plainly inferior. Doug Flutie was not an NFL star (he made one Pro Bowl in a journeyman’s 12-year career here), but was a superstar to the north, winning six CFL league MVP awards and four Grey Cup MVPs.
The Japanese big-league likewise is indisputably inferior. Tuffy Rhodes, after a checkered, lurching six-year MLB career in which he batted .224, went to Japan and became an unlikely legend, launching 464 career home runs.
In Ichiro’s case, one can only imagine that he might be breaking Rose’s MLB hits record for real — or already broken it by now — had he spent his entire career in the United States, rather than his first nine seasons with Japan’s Orix Blue Wave. Ichiro’s .314 career MLB batting average (Rose’s was .303) verifies he is a superior hitter no matter the continent. The record will remain Rose’s, but there is every argument that Ichiro is his equal — or better — as a bat master.
The humble Ichiro downplays surpassing Rose even as 50 Japanese journalists are stateside to watch him do it, and Japan’s national public broadcasting network, NHK, is televising every Marlins game to rapt audiences back home.
“I think the people that are watching are the ones that are really thinking about [the total],” he said through an interpreter.
Reaching 3,000 MLB hits is a bigger deal to Ichiro than surpassing Rose’s career total. He will be only the 30th man ever to do it, and it will be the greatest accomplishment by anyone who has worn a Marlins uniform. Before the season there were doubts Ichiro, the team’s fourth outfielder, would even reach 3K this season, but his .349 average has accelerated the timetable to a degree it’s now possible he will do it before the July All-Star Game break. (And by the way, if Ichiro is hitting close to .350, has surpassed Rose’s career total and just reached 3,000 hits — somehow, some way, baseball needs to find a way to honor that man during its All-Star break).
What a year it has been for quadragenarian athletes down here at the bottom of the peninsula.
The Florida Panthers’ Jaromir Jagr, at 44, led the Cats in scoring and moved into third place in all-time NHL goals.
Now Ichiro, at 42, has has highest batting average in seven years as he chases history.
Pete Rose might not be celebrating, but the rest of us — Japan to South Florida and all of baseball — should be.