With his leadoff single -- and somewhat fittingly, an infield hit -- today in San Diego, Ichiro's combined total of hits in Japan's major leagues (1,278) and Major League Baseball (2,978) now matches Pete Rose's career total in MLB (4,256).
"It's an incredible feat," Mariners outfielder and Japan native Nori Aoki said through an interpreter. "Even if you're adding MLB and Japan, it's still an unthinkable number."
Do Ichiro's combined 4,256 hits mean he should take over Rose's throne, though? Definitely not according to Rose. He recently told USA Today's Bob Nightengale: "It sounds like in Japan they're trying to make me the Hit Queen."
"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," Rose said. "I don't think you're going to find anybody with credibility say that Japanese baseball is equivalent to Major League Baseball. There are too many guys that fail here and then become household names there, like Tuffy Rhodes."
While that's an understandable point, it is not to say that what Ichiro did in Japan and here -- especially here -- still isn't worthy of some Ichi-Rose comparison, even if he won't get the crown.
"He's a living legend," Iwakuma said through an interpreter. "You look at him play on TV, and you can't tell how old this guy is, what kind of guy he is. Looking at the future from here on, we don't know if anyone with that talent will ever exist. That's how big a player he is and how big an influence and impact he's had on our country."
Ichiro began his career with the Orix Blue Wave in the Nippon Professional Baseball league at age 18 in 1992. For two seasons, he split time between Japan's majors and minors. Then he led its Pacific League in batting with a .385 average and a then-record 210 hits in 1994, when he was still 20 years old. It was the first of a Japanese-record seven consecutive batting titles.
Ichiro's first career home run was off Hideo Nomo, who moved to MLB in 1995. While Nomo's move led several Japanese pitchers to give MLB a try, no Japanese position player was able to do so until Ichiro signed with the Mariners and made his major league debut in 2001 at age 27.
That year, Ichiro batted .350 with 242 hits and 56 stolen bases to earn the American League Rookie of the Year and AL MVP awards and help the Mariners to a 116-46 season. He went on to have 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons -- a feat accomplished by no one else -- and break George Sisler's single-season record with 262 hits in 2004. Rose, who had 10 200-hit seasons spread over 15 years, had a career high of 230 hits in 1973.
"You could tell Ichiro knew how to hit," former teammate and current Mariners instructor Dan Wilson said. "Early on, everything he hit was to left field. In the first part of spring training, I remember it being a big deal: Is he ever going to pull the ball? And then watching him take BP and seeing him be able to hit bombs one after the other -- his swing was so consistent. He would master controlling the bat and his body in the right position. The more you watched him, the more impressive he looked."
Simply watching Ichiro prepare himself in the batter's box is impressive. While Rose had his familiar and successful batting crouch, Ichiro's trademark is standing at the plate and holding his bat straight out with his right hand while placing his left hand on his shoulder to tug at the upper part of his jersey. He then brings his bat back and prepares for his swing. This is also crucial.
Charlie Hustle was well-known for running to first base after he was walked. Ichiro is known for his lightning speed to first base in beating out grounders (or at least, he was when he was younger). Although he doesn't step out of the box before hitting the ball, Ichiro's body leans so well toward first base that his former teammate Brett Boone once said, "He's probably faster going to first than anybody in the history of the game. I played with Deion Sanders, and Deion is faster than anybody, but he can't beat Ichiro to first base. He's three steps ahead of everybody."
As a result, Ichiro has, according to Baseball-Reference.com, 694 infield hits in his career. Robert Whiting, author of "The Meaning of Ichiro," said he should be known as "The Infield Hit King."
Of course, perhaps that is just evidence that Ichiro's hit total is due to his speed, and if Rose had been equally fast to first base, he would have had even more hits in his career. Then again, maybe if Ichiro had been slower, he would have altered his approach and hit for more power. After all, he is renowned for launching balls into the seats during batting practice, and recently, he hit several into the distant upper deck at Target Field.
Ichiro's MLB career slugging percentage is .405. Rose's wasn't much higher -- just .409 -- and their home run per at-bat rates are roughly the same: 1.1 percent for Ichiro and 1.0 percent for Rose. Ichiro has 37 leadoff homers in his career, among the top 10. He also hit a walk-off home run against Mariano Rivera in 2009.
Rose reached the 3,000-hit mark in his 16th big league season. With 22 more hits, Ichiro will also reach 3,000 hits in his 16th season. If he reaches that mark, he will have done so despite being nearly four years older in his big league debut than anyone else in the 3,000-hit club. The majority of the club's members began their big league careers by age 20 or 21.
In addition to leading Japan's Pacific League in batting seven times, Ichiro led the American League twice (2001 and 2004), while Rose led the National League in batting three times (1968, 1969 and 1973). Ichiro hit .372 in 2004, 24 points higher than Rose's highest average (.348). His major league career average is .314, compared to Rose's .302. Throw in his NPB numbers, and Ichiro's career average is .323.
By the way, is the NPB league truly a lower level than our majors? Probably, but consider this: Ichiro averaged 1.3 hits per game in his seven full seasons in Japan. He averaged 1.41 hits per game his first 10 seasons in MLB, before he turned 37. Rose never averaged more than 1.3 hits per game in any 10-year stretch. Also, Ichiro is playing in an era in which pitchers are throwing a good 10 mph faster than they did in Rose's time. But Rose hit .335 in 1968, the famed Year of the Pitcher.
When you go to non-hit comparisons, Rose, famous for his head-first dives, stole 198 bases in his career -- and was caught stealing 149 times. The speedier Ichiro has stolen 504 bases, most among active players. Rose barreled into Ray Fosse to score the winning run in the 1970 All-Star Game, one of the most famous in All-Star history. Although not nearly as well-remembered, Ichiro had an important race to the plate when he hit the only inside-the-park home run in All-Star Game history in 2007.
Add Rose's minor league numbers (all at Class A or lower) and his postseasons, and he had 4,769 hits as a professional player, the most in history. Ty Cobb is second with 4,379, and Ichiro is third with 4,256. But throw in Ichiro's minor league numbers from Japan, and he has 4,434 hits, which puts him second.
That's still significantly behind Rose, but bear in mind that when Ichiro played his first three seasons in Japan, the NPB season was only 130 games, and it was just 135 games his final four years (though he missed 62 games due to injuries his final two years). Despite those injuries, if it had been a 162-game season like in MLB and he had maintained his 1.34 hit per game average, Ichiro likely would have had at least 125 more hits in Japan, which would bring his professional total to over 4,575. That still wouldn't match Rose's total, but Ichiro's career isn't over yet.
Perhaps he, too, could be a player-manager and keep hitting until he is 45, as Rose did. That seems plausible when you consider that at age 42, Ichiro is batting .350 in his 25th "major league" season. If he keeps that up, maybe he will have more professional hits than anyone.
Rose probably wouldn't bet on that happening.