Wednesday September 1st, 2010

We usually wait for milestones to salute excellence, but every now and then it's worth pausing to admire some athlete who is sui generis, who does something spectacular, but does it day after day, year after year. So may we now sing the praises of Ichiro Suzuki as he completes his 10th season in American baseball.

It's not as if Ichiro is ignored or unsung. He's not only been an MVP, but also he's made the All-Star team every season, and he holds the major-league record with nine straight 200 hit seasons. But Ichiro is on a losing team in Seattle, he hasn't appeared in the postseason in nine years, and he plays out in the Pacific Northwest, in what most of the media considers (with a bow to Dan Jenkins) Baja Yukon.

The fact is, though, that Ichiro is probably better at the task of putting a bat on a pitched ball than anyone, ever, in history. Unfortunately, he came into a league first ruled by home runs and then pitching, making what he does seem like singing Gilbert and Sullivan when everybody is listening to rock. If he were a basketball player, Ichiro would be shooting set shots. If he were a football player, he would be drop-kicking. Ichiro just brings the bat around, raises his leg and pivots in his peculiar fashion, making contact and sending the ball to an empty place. If he isn't injured, he will easily reach 200 hits again this season. Only Pete Rose did that 10 times, and it took him 17 years. Ichiro will be 10 for 10.

He has 2,195 hits in our major league. He blooped 1,278 hits in the Japanese majors. In case you want to suggest that he feasted on weak pitching over there, well, Ichiro actually averages more hits per game here than he did in Japan. He just hits pitchers. Ichiro averages a little more than 1.33 hits a game, whoever is pitching, wherever, whatever time of day. Altogether, at age 36, he has more than 3,600 hits, about 600 fewer than Rose's American record. Since he's in top shape, he'll probably play long enough to end up with a total of 5,000 hits in global major-league play.

And, of course, Ichiro is a significant cultural figure. As the first Japanese position player and the first big star to jump to the U.S., he opened up the American game to Asians, and made our national pastime truly global ... even if he can't ever get into a World Series himself.

Our provincial Hall of Fame does not recognize Japanese baseball stars, like Sadaharu Oh, the world career home-run champion. But they can't keep Ichiro out of Cooperstown. No, maybe he's not the best player of his era, but he may be better at what he does best than any other athlete of his time. And he made an international difference. So, today, simply: Arigato, Ichiro-san.

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