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Rob Smaal

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Experts divided on significance of feat

by Rob Smaal (Jul 31, 2008)

The significance of Ichiro's latest milestone seems to be split among baseball experts. While everyone seems to agree that 3,000 hits is a heck of a lot of lumber on leather--in any country--some feel that the 1,278 hits Ichiro banged out in nine seasons in Japan detract from the accomplishment.

Boston Red Sox TV color man Jerry Remy, for one, said on a recent broadcast that he was not particularly impressed with the feat, coming as it did in two very different leagues.

Best-selling author Robert Whiting, who has penned a couple of classics on Japanese baseball--"You Gotta Have Wa" and "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat"--is also among those who applaud Ichiro's achievement, while at the same time trying to keep it all in perspective.

"Ichiro is a great player, 3,000 hits is a hard record to attain and he's due all the congratulations he's been receiving," Whiting said in an e-mail from Switzerland, "but a total of 3,000 hits, nearly half of which come from Japan, is not the same as 3,000 hits all achieved in the major leagues. Keep in mind that during his time in Japan, Ichiro played against some pitchers who would not have been even Double-A level in the U.S."

Whiting, whose latest book published in 2004 was originally titled "The Meaning of Ichiro: The New Wave from Japan and the Transformation of Our National Pastime," goes on to state that Ichiro's speed, as much as his swing, can be credited for a good portion of his base hits.

"In MLB, Ichiro changed his style of hitting at the request of former Seattle manager Lou Piniella, who wanted Ichiro to hit the ball on the ground, not in the air, to take advantage of his great foot speed," said Whiting. "As a result, Ichiro has had nearly 500 hits on routine ground balls to the infield. This is not quite the same as the 3,000 hits that many other great batters had, guys like, say, George Brett, Hank Aaron, Robin Yount, Stan Musial, etc., who all hit hard line drives to the outfield and had a lot of extra-base hits."

Whiting, who mentioned that Ichiro would be more accurately compared to singles-hitters like Pete Rose or Rod Carew, also points out that Ichiro's hit total may be inflated somewhat by an apparent unwillingness to take a lot of pitches and/or the fact that pitchers are more likely to pitch to a player who is not viewed as a home-run threat.

"Another thing to consider is that Ichiro hardly ever draws a walk. A lot of great hitters, like Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken, Jr. etc., managed a lot of hits while also drawing over 100 walks a season."

While Whiting takes up the role of devil's advocate, others, like former MLB player and manager Frank Robinson, have already earmarked Ichiro for Cooperstown, home of baseball's Hall of Fame. Robinson told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Ichiro, now 34 and in his eighth major-league season, needs a few more years of service, "but I think he's a lock when he's been out of the game five years ... he'll be in the Hall--he's that good."

Former MLB pitcher Rich "Goose" Gossage, who was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, told the P-I's John Hickey that Ichiro "came over here and became the kind of player we'd never seen before. He was a different kind of hitter, he made things happen, and he's still doing that with all those 200-hit seasons. It takes a special player to do that year after year after year."

"Mr. October" Reggie Jackson called Ichiro "something special" and Paul Molitor, a member of the 3,000-hit club himself and a former Mariners hitting coach, told Hickey: "I don't think there's any doubt that Ichiro will be in the Hall by the time he's done. I talked to him last week and I think he wants to play into his 40s. If he does that, he'll have 3,000 (MLB) hits and nothing will keep him out of Cooperstown."

As for Whiting, if you want to impress him he has another number in mind.

"In another eight years, Ichiro will have his 3,000 hits in MLB, with a lifetime total approaching 5,000 hits," Whiting noted. "Now 5,000 hits--a figure like that is impressive in any league."

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