When baseball historians get into the “greatest player of all time” debates, typically they cop out to two things: Accomplishments, and Context. Often times, one is used to dampen the other. For example:
- ACCOMPLISHMENT: Arguably the greatest contact hitter of all time, he holds the all time batting average record of .367, and held the record for total hits at 4,121 for over 50 years.
- CONTEXT: Cobb played in an era that segregated whites from players of color for the entirety of his career. It’s a fair argument that he didn’t play against the best talent of his time, and whether or not that would have impacted his overall performance. Not to mention never traveling to the West Coast, playing against the shift, modern pitching velocity, or at night.
You can ruin just about anyone’s good time if you contextualize a players accomplishments, whether it be the introduction of the DH, raising the pitchers mound, or steroids. In order to truly be a generationally defining player, you need to approach the game in a way that is uniquely yours, and succeed on a level that forces objective acknowledgement of success. There are two ways to do this:
- BREAK NEW GROUND ENTIRELY:
- We’ll call this the “Babe Ruth” approach. When the chicken-legged son of a bartender decided he was going to try and hit the ball out of the ballpark every time he came up, he was arguably creating an entire new kind of approach to hitting. He was the first, and he succeeded so enormously (He retired with 714 home runs. In 2nd place was Roger Connor, with a total of 138), that he changed the way the game was played entirely.
- RE-INVENT A DEAD STYLE OF PLAY
- Take a style or philosophy that has been all but abandoned and revive it. This style has to be antithetical to the current mindset, and fill whatever gaps the modern game has. It basically has to use ancient methods to expose modern flaws.
- BREAK NEW GROUND ENTIRELY:
We’ll call this the “Ichiro” approach.
The year is 2001, and baseball is doing as well as it ever has. The Yankees have completed three consecutive World Series titles, and turnstiles at ballparks across America are practically flying off the hinges, the strike of 1994 a distant memory that seems all but forgotten (for the moment). The Home Run had become a focal point of the game, as many fans sat on the edge of their seats in anticipation of watching their teams cleanup hitter blast a baseball into orbit. The long ball had become so commonplace that seemingly overnight, teams began to stack lineups with bulked up sluggers, trying to out swat their opponents into oblivion.
So here comes this scrawny kid from Japan with a goofy batting stance. He wasn’t the prototypical rookie, in fact he was considered a premier player in his native country. Ichiro Suzuki was attempting to be the first Japanese position player to break in to the Major leagues, and he was going to do it on his terms. He could run like the wind, and hit seemingly anything that a pitcher could throw at him. Around the league, people were beginning to take notice of the stoic outfielder, and his spark plug approach to the game. It was a Rose-esque hustle, but with natural talent and a feel for the game to boot. Many likened his style to that of the extinct Negro Leagues, who had a “heads up” style of play, running out ground balls, stealing bases, and keeping defenses off balance.
His hitting was turning heads, but it was a single throw that opened eyes…
The victim in this video is Terrance Long, who recalled afterwards “It was going to take a perfect throw to get me, and it was a perfect throw.”. As a personal editorial, two of my favorite defensive plays all time are “The Flip“, and “The Throw” (I’ve got nothing against the A’s, I promise!). What struck me about it is the sheer effortless nature of it, and Ichiro’s reaction. Arms on his knee, on one hand acknowledging the play, but also seemingly blasé about it, as if he expected that exact outcome. That single moment became one of the defining moments of his career. It was his announcement: I’ve arrived.
The rest of his career would prove that out, as he accrued over 3,000 hits (plus the 1,278 he had in Japan), and would play into his 40’s before finally retiring during the 2019 opening series, which happened to be in Japan. When we reflect back on his time in the game, he could be entered into the conversation of “greatest hitters ever”, and a clear hall of famer:
- 3,089 hits (23rd all time)
- 509 Stolen Bases
- 2 batting titles
- 10 Gold Glove Awards
- 1 MVP/Rookie of the Year
- 59.4 WAR
So in reference to the title, Why does Ichiro matter? All you need to know about that, is the reaction of 24 year old Yusei Kikuchi as Ichiro left a game for the last time. As a boy, Kikuchi cited Ichiro as one of his main inspirations for playing baseball. The master shared the dugout for one last time, with the student.
Oh, and just for fun, just watch the master at work, beating out infield hits: