01 October 2004

Ichiro Breaks 84-year-old Hitting Record

Steve Kelly of the Seattle Times reports:
For the past four seasons, baseball fans in this town have been fortunate to watch Ichiro play a kind of baseball the big leagues never have seen.

They've watched him get more hits in a four-year span, 921, than any player ever. They've seen him play the game at an entirely different speed. Watched him make the best infielders in the game jittery. Seen him turn seemingly harmless ground balls into base hits.

And last night, on a cool autumn evening, as crisp as a golden delicious, a night that made you wish the postseason would return, they saw him break an 84-year-old record.

Appropriately he did it with a single. A typical Ichiro slapshot that was lined up the middle.

It was a single, like 221 others this season. The kind of room-service 3-2 pitch from sinkerballer Ryan Drese that Ichiro has feasted on since arriving from Japan in 2001.

In his first two at-bats, he had tied [at 257], then broken [at 258] George Sisler's major-league record for hits in a season that had stood since 1920. [Ichiro ended up with 259 hits.]

It is a remarkable achievement even at a time when the base hit has been devalued like third-world currency. And it was celebrated the way it should have been last night inside Safeco.

Ichiro's teammates, led by manager Bob Melvin, ran to first base to celebrate with him. And after all of the hugs, after he twice tipped his helmet to the crowd, and after he broke into a rare on-field smile, Ichiro ran to the box seats behind first where members of Sisler's family were sitting....

Ichiro's pursuit of Sisler was bigger news in Japan than it was here. It was the top story on NHK's 10 o'clock news. The Safeco Field press box was swollen with Japanese TV and newspaper reporters.

"I talked to someone in Japan this morning, and they said it was a very big thing," said Mariners pitcher Masao Kida.
The Fujisankei News broadcasts that I watched the past two days led off with 10-minute segments on Ichiro (and Matsui as the Yankees clinched their AL East title), and then recapped the same during their sports segments.

UPDATE: Colby Cosh has a wonderful essay on Ichiro.
The temptation to make Ichiro a symbol for his native country is overpowering sometimes; he looks so foreign out there at the plate, with his knock-kneed stance, his non-level swing, his uncanny break towards first, and his strange pre-swing rite of using his bat as a crosshair, as if calibrating himself with respect to the geometry of the playing field. But after tonight he belongs to the world, or that part of it which cares about baseball. In Japan Ichiro is regarded as an individualistic, "American" figure. Few American players can have been as stubborn in resisting interference with their batting style as Ichiro was during his first difficult years in Japanese pro ball. And he had to defy the norms again when he crossed the Pacific with seven Japanese batting titles in tow....

I wonder if Ichiro thinks that the ceremony surrounding tonight's capture of the single-season hit record isn't a very funny sort of Americanism. Long ago I remember reading of a Japanese visitor to the United States being shocked that the living relatives of George Washington, who might have been the American imperial family, enjoyed no special status in the republic and lived anonymously amongst their neighbours. Yet the game tonight was interrupted for a display of nothing less than unvarnished ancestor-worship, as Ichiro exchanged salutes with the daughter and other descendants of George Sisler. I do not disapprove of this one bit, but I am not sure it would have occurred to anybody in, say, the baseball of 1940. Somehow the republican sport par excellence has constantly absorbed ornaments of royalism, whose very premise is that accomplishments can be reified as heirlooms.... Ichiro came to Seattle, U.S.A. and found in American baseball a world of hierarchy, ritual, deference, dominance, splendour, custom, and oppressively omnipresent history. It was, all in all, an awfully short journey.
via Matt Welch, whose blog is a must-read every day in October--especially if the Anaheim Angels remain in contention.

Colby Cosh concludes with another interesting cultural twist.
One must nod to Vancouver's Tyee for spotting an underappreciated angle to the Hit King Ichiro story. Amidst the welcome revival of George Sisler's image, the man in second place on the single-season hit list, Lefty O'Doul, has mostly been forgotten. As it happens, O'Doul is a 2002 inductee into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and played a crucial role in the historical developments of which Ichiro is the apotheosis. (He has even been called the "Father of Japanese Baseball", though I'm not sure anyone ever said it in Japanese.

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