Ichiro Suzuki's 4,000 hits
Enjoying the harvest: A baseball player sprouted from seeds sown far away
We all got a timeout from the circus this past week, if we wanted one. There's the amazing Rex Ryan QB juggling act, and the ever-present Alex Rodriguez drama, and over there in Ring 3, the chilling Aaron Hernandez murder indictment. But you also might have noticed that the wonder that is Ichiro Suzuki has surpassed 4,000 hits combined in his bi-national career.
The number alone is worthy of note in the stats-sated world of baseball. Only two others have reached it, both legendary as players and jackasses. You could have argued at some point that you had to be a little, shall we say, over-focused to reach 4,000 hits. But compared to Ty Cobb and Pete Rose, Ichiro, despite occasional bouts of egotism and a decidedly unique obsession with his bats, fails miserably in the jackass department.
And if you're a baseball xenophobe, deal with this: As my colleague Jim Caple pointed out in a previous column, only five players have reached 4,000 hits combined between the majors and minors. So whatever your opinion of Japanese baseball, Ichiro's accomplishment puts him in rare baseball company.
But in fact, his journey from there to here is what makes him so special. Imagine an apple seed blown from an orchard to somewhere thousands of miles away. The original orchard has yielded the same crop year after year, as have others like it, and to enhance their chances in the market, farmers have tampered with the apple, changed the flavor and the color and the size, in some cases making it unrecognizable in taste and form from the simple fruit they started with. And then that windblown seed comes back in the form of a perfect version of an apple. One taste reminds us of what was wonderful about apples in the first place.
This is the gift that Ichiro gave us. It was possible to see in him all of the clichés of playing by the fundamentals of the game realized in unself-conscious harmony. The bat in his hands was closer to a scalpel in a surgeon's hand: he used it time and again to drive balls precisely to where no one could get to them, thus proving even to the numbers guys that luck indeed can be the residue of design.
He was no less artful in the field or on the bases, with a rifle arm and a thief's speed, and in case you thought this precise and impeccable athlete could use a bat only like a 9-iron or a cue stick, he still managed to hit the combined 200-homer mark at 170 sleek pounds.
Remember that he slipped into the game here the year that Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, when the Mac and Sammy show was still a fond memory, when A-Rod signed that first absurd contract with the Texas Rangers. The strategy of the three-run dinger as envisioned by Earl Weaver in the '60s had mutated into a full-blown game-wide obsession, and why not? Dingers filled the seats and provided an answer for slam dunks and sack dances, and thus hope that the sport could remain relevant in competition with glitzier leagues.
And yet, as that seed from Japan blossomed before us, something in our collective memory of the sport was stirred, and we saw the game again in its original purity.
It is one of the most widely understood aspects of genetics that inbreeding produces the weakest and most vulnerable offspring. Why would that not be so with baseball? One of the beautiful benefits of Jackie Robinson's bravery is that he freed the game to be played by anyone. Most of us have come far enough since then to appreciate what that means, to embrace the ways the game has been enriched by players from Caracas to Seoul and yes, Havana, trained by coaches who imagined the way it should be played before the era of highlights showered them with evidence of how we play it. Even the widespread embrace of the hybrid milestone reached by combining Ichiro's career stats in both countries is a profound statement about our own growth in accepting other ways of seeing the game.
Surely coaches in other sports have reaped the benefits of international cross-breeding. Gregg Popovich turned the San Antonio Spurs into one of this century's most successful franchises by betting on it. But no single athlete exemplifies those benefits more perfectly, and more poetically, than Ichiro. And for that, we should all simply bow slightly, and say thank you.
Gary Hoenig is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine.