It can hardly be a coincidence that just as the emperor of Japan hinted at abdicating his throne this past weekend, the island nation’s greatest baseball player ascended to a kind of diamond royalty. Ichiro Suzuki, a 42-year-old outfielder with 16 major league seasons under his belt (Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees, and Miami Marlins), got his 3,000th big league hit, a triple deep to right that fell just short of being a home run. Together with the 1,278 hits he accumulated in nine seasons in the Japanese league, he leads the world in total hits. If Pete Rose is the Hit King, Ichiro is the Hit Emperor.
Other members of the 3,000-hit club saluted Ichiro's achievement, from Hank Aaron to Dave Winfield, to some who played against him, such as Craig Biggio and Wade Boggs. Even Rose finally came through when it mattered. He was miffed when fans were counting down how many more hits Ichiro needed (if you combine his major league and Japan league totals) to pass him. "They're trying to make me the Hit Queen," Rose complained. "I'm not trying to take anything away from Ichiro, he's had a Hall of Fame career, but the next thing you know, they'll be counting his high-school hits."
But this week Rose welcomed Ichiro to Valhalla. "Anybody who gets 3,000 hits is a great hitter," Rose said. "Ichiro is a tremendous hitter. What 3,000 hits does is automatically put him into the Hall of Fame, at least I think it should. He's a great hitter with speed and a great arm. I have a lot of respect for him. I know how hard it is to get 3,000 hits. It's nice to have a non-home-run hitter get there again."
And yet as another member of the 3,000-hit club, Al Kaline, said, "Most of the guys that get 3,000 hits are the guys that are not power hitters. They get pitched to a little bit more, and [pitchers] don't want to walk them because the threat of the home run is not as deep."
Ichiro probably could have been a power hitter if he'd wanted to be. In a 16-year major league career, his home-run total is 113. The most in any season was 15 in 2005 with the Mariners, but I'm betting he could have averaged at least 15-20 per year. In nine years playing in the Japanese league, he hit 118 home runs, with 25 in 1995 and 21 in 1999. (It's regularly noted that he started his major league career at age 27, which somewhat obscures the fact he was playing at Japan's highest level at the age of 18.) The pitching in Japan isn't as strong as major league pitching, but it still takes power to hit the ball out of the park, and Japanese stadiums aren't much smaller than American parks. Green Kobe, the home park for Ichiro's Japanese club, Orix Blue Wave, is 311 feet down both lines, 383 feet in the gaps, and 400 feet to straightaway center.
Don't take my word for Ichiro's power. Here's Derek Jeter paying tribute to his former Yankees teammate in the magazine he publishes, The Players' Tribune:
During the All-Star Game in Seattle in 2001, I was standing around with some Mariners players when they started talking about how Ichiro should enter the Home Run Derby. I thought they were joking. "He'd win if he entered," somebody said. Shortly after, I found out what the guy meant. Everyone watched as Ichi put on his own personal home run clinic.
It's a really nice article by one certain first-ballot Hall of Famer about another. Jeter remembers Ichiro's progress learning the English language. It's Ichiro's rookie season, and after doubling against the Yankees, he dusts himself off and greets Jeter: "What's going on, my main man?" "Main man?" Jeter writes. "All I could do was smile. Where was this guy learning this stuff?" Apparently much of it came from then-Mariners outfielder Mike Cameron. Jeter writes: "Mike had taught him to say things like, 'What's up, my brother from another mother?' "
Jeter recounts the 2012 playoff game against the Tigers when he broke his ankle and was slow leaving the clubhouse.
I was finished icing my ankle and kind of taking my time. There was no rush to go anywhere. We had just lost and I knew I wouldn't be able to play until the next season. Soon the clubhouse was almost empty. Ichi, his interpreter and I were sitting in the small changing room. Ichi hadn't even taken off his entire uniform yet. Finally, I got my things together and stood up with my crutches to leave. It was only then that I realized Ichiro had been waiting for me. When I got up, he got up and watched me leave.
I think Ichiro wanted to hit a home run for his 3,000th hit, just as Jeter had done. The evidence can be seen in a chart showing the distribution of all of Ichiro's 3,000 hits. The singles and doubles are evenly distributed across the field, the majority of triples are to the right side, and all of Ichiro's home runs but one are in the area from the right-field gap to the right-field line, where they're almost stacked like poker chips. I suspect that very few, if any, of these home runs were accidents. Ichiro always seems to know where to put the ball in play to maximum effect, and the chart suggests that when he went to the plate with an idea to look for something to pull out of the park, and got it, he put it in nearly the same place 113 times. On August 7, it seemed like he was looking for the same, and just missed it. His triple fell a few feet short of the right-field bleachers.
After his 25 years in the highest levels of professional baseball, with more hits still to come, it's a fitting reminder that even when Ichiro doesn't get it exactly right, it's still evidence of his mastery.