For Pete’s Sake

Pete Rose in 2009 (to me): “And Ichiro … he can have the hits he got in Japan and he’s still not breaking the record.”

Pete Rose in 2013 (to USA Today): “Hey, if we’re counting professional hits then add my 427 in the minors. I was a professional then too!”

Pete Rose in 2016 (to USA Today): “I’m not trying to take anything away from Ichiro, he’s had a Hall of Fame career, but the next thing you know you’ll be counting his high school hits.”

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Well, OK, magnanimity isn’t exactly Pete Rose’s strong suit. Back when Ichiro Suzuki was several hundred hits away from Rose, he was happy to be big-hearted. Sure! Ichiro can count his hits in Japan! Why not? He’s still not catching the Hit King (trademarked)!

Then, in 2013, when Ichiro reached 4,000 total hits between Japan and the U.S. and started getting a little attention for it, well, the collar started getting a little tighter and the Hit King (trademarked) started getting a little grumpier about things. Wait, if he can count his hits in Japan, well, what about my 427 minor-league hits (and how about Pete Rose KNOWING that he had 427 minor-league hits)?

And now, yes, there are all sorts of alarm bells going off in the mind of the Hit King (trademarked). Ichiro just got his 4,257th international hit. That is one more than the 4,256 Major League hits of Pete Rose. And so, yes, out comes the jab about high school hits. Like I say, magnanimity is not exactly Pete Rose’s strong suit.

And it’s a shame too because this would have been a great time for Pete Rose to be magnanimous, to celebrate Ichiro’s grand achievement without reservation. Here’s why: Ichiro’s achievement isn’t just a celebration of Ichiro. It isn’t just a celebration of baseball. It’s a celebration of Pete Rose.

I’ve written this before: If Ichiro Suzuki had started his career in Major League Baseball, I think he would have actually broken Pete Rose’s record. You’ve probably seen this:

Ichiro from age 27-42: .314/.357/.405, 2,979 hits.

Rose from age 27-42: .309/.383/.418, 3,091 hits.

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So that’s pretty similar, especially by the time this season ends. The question with Ichiro is, could he have gotten the 899 hits that Rose got before he turned 27 years old and the 266 hits Rose got after age 42.

The 899 hits before 27 — I have no doubt whatsoever that if Ichiro had started in the United States he would have had gone way past 899 hits by age 27. Two reasons to believe that:

1. He got 1,278 hits in Japan in shorter seasons. He was one of the country’s great stars by the time he was 19 years old.

2. In his rookie year in the majors at age 27, he led the league with a .350 batting average and he had 242 hits. You imagine he would have put up similar numbers at age 26, age 25, age 24, maybe age 23 — going all the way back to when he was 20 years old. It’s all guesswork, but it’s pretty easy to imagine Ichiro with 1,000 to 1,200 hits by the time he turns 27. That would put him right in line with catching Rose.

But this gets to the point: None of this happened. Ichiro’s hit total is an extraordinary achievement, and Ichiro himself is one of the true wonders of sport. But Pete Rose’s hit record is secure. We don’t count Japanese statistics when talking about Major League records. We don’t consider Hideo Nomo to have 3,000 strikeouts  We don’t think of Hideki Matsui having 509 career home runs. They did, but we have always separated Japanese and Major League statistics. Sadaharu Oh hitting 868 home runs is mind-boggling. But it doesn’t diminish Henry Aaron or Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth. It accentuates their numbers.

And Ichiro’s international hit total accentuates the marvelous career of Pete Rose. If you got to the Major Leagues at age 20 and got 200 hits a year for 21 consecutive years — every year until you were 41 —  you STILL would not get to Pete Rose’s hit total. For Rose to get to 4,256 took a single-mindedness that boggles the mind.

He was not considered a prospect. He was just a Cincinnati kid who signed with his hometown team. He willed his way through three minor-league seasons (427 minor-league hits!) and bulled his way onto the Major League club when almost nobody wanted him there. He won the Rookie of the Year award by playing insane, all-out baseball (which, according to legend, led Mickey Mantle to give him his nickname during spring training by saying in disgust: “Oh look at Charlie Hustle out there”). And he never stopped playing that sort of on-the-edge baseball.

Between age 30 and 39, Rose’s teams played 1,613 games. Rose played in 1,607 of them. He simply refused rest, refused to take a day off, refused to give up his fifth plate appearance of the day. He led the league in plate appearances six times during that span. Fifteen times in his career, Rose got more than 700 plate appearances in a season, far and away the record.

This was his unwavering dedication to compile hits, to always add to the total, and when he stopped hitting in one city, he moved to the next. When he needed to become a player-manager to keep going, he became a player-manager. He is an obsessive man, of course — we all can name the many obsessions of Pete Rose. Getting hits was the greatest obsession of his life.

And that obsession led to 4,256. It’s his Sistine Chapel.

Ichiro Suzuki’s two-continent journey is every bit as amazing in its own way, but it is a different journey. Ichiro is a different player from Rose. While Rose was a grinder and a line-drive machine, Ichiro is a flash of lightning who is halfway down the first base line by the time he connects with the ball. Rose stretched singles into doubles and doubles into triples on sheer gall (Rose hit about 200 more doubles and triples than Ichiro). Ichiro stole 500 bases in his Major League career (and more than 700 in total) and threw like Roberto Clemente from right field. Rose was a physical presence, pounding into catchers and breaking up double plays. Ichiro, at his best, seemed light as air.

Everybody has an opinion about Pete Rose. There are people who think he should be in the Hall of Fame, people who think he should never be allowed near the Hall of Fame, and people who think he should only go into the Hall of Fame after he dies. There are people who think he has paid way too steep a price for gambling on baseball, people who think he has gotten off light, and people who never want to hear another word about him.

Whatever the opinion, though, Rose did knock those 4,256 hits. That’s on the books. It’s the Major League record, and it probably will be for the next 50 years. Ichiro is a once-in-a-generation player, and if circumstances had been different he might have challenged that record. Instead, he had a career uniquely his own. Pete Rose as the Hit King (trademarked) should be able to say, “Heck of a job, Ichiro. You’ve got your own kingdom.”

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