Baseball

Pete and Ichiro Down By the Schoolyard

A handful of years years ago, I was talking with Pete Rose while he signed autographs in Las Vegas. I’ve done this five or six times now and it’s fantastic every single time. People will disagree about whether Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame but as a character, a storyteller, an observer of baseball, he’s the best. On this day, we were talking about just how unbreakable his hit record is, and he was making the point that Derek Jeter will never break it.

“And Ichiro,” he said. “He can have the hits he got in Japan, he’s still not breaking the record.”

Well, this week, Rose -- apparently after seeing Ichiro Suzuki being celebrated for reaching his 4,000th professional hit --  had a change of heart. Not the first time. Not the last.

“Hey,” Rose told Bob Nightengale at USA Today, “if we’re counting professional hits, then add on my 427 hits in the minors. I was a professional  then too.”

In many ways, that’s the perfect Pete Rose quote -- pointed, specific (notice that he knows he had 427 hits in the minor leagues), justifiable and just slightly ungenerous. Rose has every right to say it. And he comes off just a little worse for saying it.

I’ve already written about Ichiro reaching 4,000 professional hits -- how I think it is a fabulous achievement, absolutely worth celebrating, and how it doesn’t really hold up as a direct comparison to Rose or other 3,000-hit men in the Major Leagues. And in there I also wrote that I believe if Ichiro had started his career in the Major Leagues he’d actually have MORE than 4,000 hits. A few people wondered how I calculated that, and it’s really very simple math.

Ichiro started his professional career at age 18 -- but he wasn’t an everyday play in Japan until he was 20. Before his age 20 season, he had only 36 hits, so while that’s not exactly irrelevant (we would not be celebrating Ichiro reaching his 3,976th hit), it’s pretty close to irrelevant. Let’s start with age 20.

For seven seasons, Ichiro averaged 177 hits per season in Japan. He came over when he was 27 years old.

For his first seven seasons in the Major Leagues, Ichiro averaged 227 hits. So that’s FIFTY more hits per year -- longer season, many more at-bats, etc.

Now, let’s play around with the numbers. If Ichiro had started in the Major Leagues when he was 20 and averaged 227 hits per season for those first seven seasons, he’d have 4,311 hits -- that’s more than Pete Rose ALREADY. And Ichiro’s not yet 40 years old.

But let’s say it’s unreasonable to think Ichiro would have been that good at age 20. Few are. I actually don’t think it’s unreasonable -- after all, at age 20, Ichiro hit .385 with 210 hits in just 546 at-bats in Japan. But let’s just say that we can’t assume Ichiro would have been a 20-year-old star in the Majors. So, instead, let’s work backward working with what we know.

We know this: As a 27-year-old rookie for Seattle, Ichiro hit .350 with 242 hits and won the MVP award.

So, it’s certainly reasonable to think he would have been at least that good as a 26-year old. He was already a legend in Japan, so I’m willing to make that leap. Let’s add 227 hits to his career total. Let’s also assume he would be been about that good as a 25-year-old. So that’s another 227 hits.

We’re now at about 3,276 hits.

What about as a 24-year-old? In Japan, he hit .358. It’s kind of hard to assume he wasn’t a complete player at 24. So let’s dial it back some and add 200 more hits. That puts him at 3,476.

A 23-year-old? He hit .345 with 185 hits in Japan. Again, I think you have to add at least 200 more. That’s 3,676. And I would honestly say that’s conservative.

As a 22-year-old? He hit .356 in Japan. Let’s dial it back a little more -- give him 180 hits. That puts him at 3,856.

See where this is going? He’s now only 144 hits shy of 4,000, and that’s just with him STARTING at 22. What do we do with him as a 21-year-old? In Japan, he hit .342 with a career high 25 homers. What do we do with him as a 20-year-old? As mentioned, he hit .385 in Japan and was a phenomenon.

Let’s give him 50 hits as a 20-year-old, called up in midseason. And let’s give him 150 hits as a 21-year-old working his way into the lineup. Add it up, and you’re at 4,056 hits. And, again, I think that’s conservative for someone who in Japan was obviously a Mike Trout like phenom.

You can change the numbers any way you like. I honestly do not see how a healthy Ichiro Suzuki, drafted as an 18-year-old in the U.S., does not have MORE than 4,000 hits right now in the Major Leagues.

Rose could have said that, of course. I like when Pete Rose acts generous. Maybe he doesn’t always mean it, but generosity suits him. He’s at his best when he’s talking about how great a player Johnny Bench was, what a joy it was to be teammates with Joe Morgan, how much he admires Derek Jeter, how much he loved playing in New York when the fans booed him, the kick he gets out of watching Bryce Harper play the game (Harper has met Rose and, in some ways, patterned his all-out style on Rose). I like the Pete Rose who is brash but openhanded enough to say, “Hey, man, I don’t know if he would have stayed healthy, but if Ichiro starts here, whew, I’m sweating.”

He has nothing to lose by saying that. It’s a free shot at generosity. Rose’s hit record is completely safe. Nobody is contemplating a change in the record books to allow Ichiro’s Japanese hits to count. How much better does it make him look if he simply says, “What an achievement. As someone who knows how hard it is to get hits whether you are, I can tell you that getting 4,000 hits around the world is absolutely fabulous and I applaud him?”

Pete Rose was a marvelous baseball player. He lined singles and doubles all over the park, he scored runs like nobody of his time, he played just about every position, he inflamed the imaginations of millions of baseball fans with the way he played, he was the MVP of perhaps the greatest World Series ever played.

Ichiro Suziuki is a marvelous player. He slashed and blooped and beat out singles all over the park, he stole a lot of bases, he unleashed jaw-dropping throws, he inflamed the imaginations of millions of baseball fans with the way he played and, more than that, opened their minds to the idea of just how good a Japanese baseball player can be.

Rose could have paid tribute to Ichiro without reminding people of his own greatness. But, I guess there’s a part of Pete that is always defending his turf. It might not be the best part of him. But it is certainly a part of him.

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