Ichiro received a standing ovation after hitting his 4,000th career hit. (Frank Franklin II/AP)
"It was supposed to be a number that was special to me," said Ichiro Suzuki on collecting his 4,000th career hit in Wednesday night's 4-2 win over the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium. "What happened tonight, I wasn't expecting. When my teammates came out to first base, that was very special, and obviously the fans — I wasn't expecting so much joy and happiness from them."
The reaction of Suzuki's Yankees teammates and the 36,140 fans on hand to witness his milestone hit — typically, a single, in this case off R.A. Dickey and past third baseman Brett Lawrie into leftfield — couldn't compare to the outpouring for Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit two years ago. The Yankees captain has spent his entire career in the organization, winning five World Series and reaching a familiar plateau that was given months of buildup. Nonetheless, when presented with the chance to recognize Suzuki's unique accomplishment, those on hand quite literally rose to the occasion, with fans giving him a standing ovation and teammates filing out of the dugout for a brief but memorable round of hugs and handshakes at first base.
"Having the 4,000th hit is important but what makes it most special was the fact that my teammates came out [to congratulate me]. When I look back on this, that's what's going to make it very special," said Suzuki through his translator. "What I realized today is that the Yankees are so used to things like this happening, they're so good at ceremonies like this."
Compiled on two continents and two different leagues, Suzuki's 4,000 hits — a total that includes 1,278 hits in Nippon Professional Baseball and another 2,722 in Major League Baseball — is an achievement as singular as the wiry, slap-hitting international superstar himself. Outside of Wednesday's celebration in the Bronx, its significance is probably more misunderstood. No one is suggesting that the 4,000 hits translate directly to Pete Rose's 4,256 or Ty Cobb's 4,191 (via Elias) or 4,189 (via Baseball-Reference.com), nor do they exactly match up to the 3,000 hits collected by Jeter and 25 other major leaguers. Even so, they stand as a signature accomplishment for a perennial All-Star who 12 years ago chose the daunting task of carrying his inimitable brand of baseball across the Pacific Ocean, becoming the first position player from Japan to succeed in MLB, and to this day one of the few to sustain that success.
YES Network play-by-play voice Michael Kay was one who questioned the significance of Suzuki's accomplishment in the run-up to the fateful single. As he put it late last week in relating a recent conversation with Rose himself, the 4,000 hits doesn't make him "The Hit King" any more than Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh's 868 home runs made him "The Home Run King."
That misses the point. Oh, who played 22 years (1959-1980) for the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Central League never had the chance to play stateside, so we don't have any first-hand evidence of how well his skills would have matched up with contemporary players in MLB. Former Sports Illustrated contributor Joe Posnanski suggested Suzuki's hits are like quarterback Warren Moon's combined 70,000 passing yards in the Canadian and National Football leagues, "cool, interesting and, ultimately, trivia."
Well, by that token every sports statistic is trivia. No mater how much importance we attach to them in the moment, hit and home run totals, All-Star Game appearances and World Series victories fall far short of life-or-death matters. They're lines in a dusty record book or on a bajillion-page website, albeit ones to which millions of people have attached memories and meaning — sometimes to an irrational extent (see those who cling to Hank Aaron and Roger Maris as record-holders due to their distaste for the men who surpassed them).
While Suzuki's stateside line (.320/.362/.416) doesn't match the .353/.416/.522 he hit in Japan, the evidence that he has succeeded among the best major league players is abundant and irrefutable. Coming over to the major leagues at age 27, he reeled off 10 consecutive seasons with a at least a .300 batting average and 200 hits as well as All-Star and Gold Glove honors. He broke an 84-year-old single-season record for hits in the process, collecting 262 in 2004, won a pair of batting titles, as well as the 2001 AL Rookie of the Year and AL MVP awards. Even with a barrage of singles in lieu of power — his single-season high for home runs is 15, and he's reached double digits just three times — he has created enough value on offense, defense and on the bases (don't forget those 470 steals at an 82 percent success rate) to mach those of Hall of Famers who had much longer careers. None of that factors in what he did in Japan, where he set records and won batting titles, All-Star and Gold Glove honors in each of his seven full seasons (1994-2000), but when you add that, you get a player with an unparalleled resumé.
Would Ichiro have racked up 4,000 hits had his entire career taken place in MLB? We'll never know, but he'd have been a lock for at least 3,000, and the recognition surrounding Wednesday night's milestone should put him at least in that class in spirit if not in statistical fact. We don't hold it against Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle or Frank Robinson that they never got to 3,000 in Major League Baseball either, but they were undeniably great hitters and unique talents. So too it is with Ichiro, and where's the harm in celebrating that?
Will he stick around long enough to collect 3,000 hits in the majors, a feat that would likely require him to play through 2015 and thus sign another contract? I asked him that myself during Wednesday's postgame press conference. Here's his response:
"I get asked that a lot, but I can't have that as a goal. What happens today determines what happens tomorrow, meaning I've got to perform today in order to be in the lineup the next day. I don't make goals that are so far away. What I do is do what I can every single day and build off that and see where that takes me."
His resumé doesn't need it, that would simply be more icing on the cake. For the moment, the Yankees need him to keep producing when given the opportunity. Currently, he's hitting just .274/.307/.361, numbers that match his combined 2011-2012 line (.277/.308/.361) to an uncanny extent and have been a drag on the offense more often than not. Even so, his defense has been 11 runs above average according to Defensive Runs Saved. With his milestone hit in the rearview mirror, he demonstrated more of that defensive value on Wednesday night, making a sliding catch on a Brett Lawrie fly ball in foul territory to end the third inning.