Barry Bonds, who has homered once every eight at bats this season, and Ichiro Suzuki, who had eight homers in his first 593 at bats of 2004, are a study in contrasts. Yet as they marched toward equally spectacular milestones last weekend, they shared one distinction: Each was the leading hitter in his respective league.
Bonds, the Giants' leftfielder who through Sunday was only three home runs short of 700 for his career, topped the National League with a .371 batting average. Ichiro, the Mariners' rightfielder who needed 34 hits to break George Sisler's single-season record of 257, was No. 1 in the American League with a .378 mark. What's more, with the second-best hitters in each league more than .027 behind the leaders, the races for the batting titles were as competitive as the 1984 Reagan-Mondale election. (Ichiro was on pace to finish with 267 hits, a new record, while the oft-walked Bonds was on track to finish with only 138 hits.)
"You have to be in awe of what they are doing," says Giants catcher A.J. Pierzynski. "Two of the game's greatest players are having two of the greatest seasons of their careers. You see how different they are, but I think if Barry wanted to hit .390, .400, he could. And if Ichiro wanted to hit 30 homers, he could do that, too."
Last Saturday in San Francisco, a day after slugging his 697th homer 438 feet to right-center field, Bonds lined both a double and a single to left in a 9--7 win over the Diamondbacks. The six-time National League MVP was set to win his second batting title even though teams were pitching around him like no other player in history. Bonds, who this season needs just five more walks to break his major league record for bases on balls (198), had been walked in 37.3% of his plate appearances and had a .610 on-base percentage, which would break the record of .582 he set in 2002.
"I would say he's gotten better [in recent years]," says Braves righthander Russ Ortiz. "He's able to create more, to hit his way on base, plus hit home runs. Before, you could pitch to him a little more."
Like Bonds, Ichiro has gotten hotter as the season has gone on. He was hitting .477 after the All-Star break, and last Saturday went 5 for 5 (two singles to leftfield, two to right and one to center) in an 8--7 loss to the White Sox. With 26 games to play, Ichiro needed 1.31 hits per game to break Sisler's record, which has stood for 84 years but has been overlooked because it is so rarely challenged. No one in 74 years has come within 14 hits of the record, and the top eight alltime season-hit totals were achieved between 1911 and '30.
The 2001 batting champ when he hit .350 as a rookie, Ichiro was on pace for a career-high average as well as a major league record for at bats in a season (705, set by Willie Wilson of the Royals, in 1980). He would have to bat .526 the rest of the way to become the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941. As dangerous as Ichiro is, he had only 38 walks in his 593 at bats (12 intentional). "Ichiro's a guy pitchers don't want to walk, because if you do, [with his speed] the next thing you know he could be on third base," says Seattle manager Bob Melvin.
After acknowledging that he was worn down late last season (he finished with 212 hits but batted .257 after July 31), Ichiro appears to be much more relaxed this year. Lately he has been a sunny presence in the clubhouse. (Seattle was 51--85 through Sunday.) Asked last week if he thought he would break Sisler's record, Ichiro laughed and said, "You'd better go ask a fortune teller."
When queried about his run at becoming only the third player to hit 700 home runs, Bonds was similarly low-key. "All I care about is that we keep winning," he said on Saturday after the Giants had moved to within a half game of the Cubs in the NL wild-card race.
"Yeah, we're in the middle of a playoff race," says Pierzynski, "but even that shouldn't take away from the individual achievement that's going on. Sometimes, you just stop and watch."