On September 11, 1985, Pete Rose broke the all-time hits record before a packed house at Riverfront Stadium. He broke Ty Cobb’s record in his first plate appearance of the game, and in the 15,550th plate appearance of his career. The crowd went wild, and Rose’s teammates poured out of the dugout to congratulate him on his accomplishment. The game, understandably, had a bit of a delay. Rose was up to 4,192 career hits. Cobb was dead and stuck at 4,191 career hits. Cobb got to his total in 2,468 fewer plate appearances.
Sources actually disagree now on Cobb’s real career hit total, and Baseball-Reference puts it at 4,189. That would shift Rose’s real record-breaking day to September 8. In 1979, Rose batted .331 at the age of 38. He kept playing through 1986. Over those final seven years, he was a win above replacement, or a win below replacement, depending on your source. He played in almost 900 games. I’ll also mention here that Rose accumulated 86 career hits in the playoffs. Cobb had 17. Cobb debuted in the year Jules Verne died.
Just yesterday, Ichiro reached something of a milestone — 4,000 combined career hits between Japan and the major leagues. The milestone was long anticipated, and Ichiro did it in front of Munenori Kawasaki. He also did it in front of the world, and after Ichiro reached first base, his teammates poured out of the dugout to congratulate him on his accomplishment. The fans gave him a standing ovation and Ichiro tipped his helmet and bowed. The Ichiro hit meter lady was there.
Of course, you can’t just combine big-league stats with Japanese stats. I mean, you can, it’s easy, they’re numbers and numbers are easy to combine, but they’re numbers without the same units. Japanese baseball is worse than major-league baseball. It’s also different from major-league baseball. These points are inarguable. In Japan, Ichiro faced inferior competition, and he played a slightly different game. If you’re going to combine the numbers, then it follows that you recognize Sadaharu Oh as the all-time big-league dinger king. So what if he didn’t play in the big leagues? He had more homers in Japan than Barry Bonds had here.
You can’t combine the numbers, but then the numbers don’t matter in the first place. Not the specific numbers, anyway. Numbers only exist so we can keep track of what’s happening in the game, and while we like to see them with precision, the numbers are just stand-ins, they’re indicators. Numbers tell you who’s good and who’s not. Numbers tell you who’s been good for a long time, and who’s been a flash in the pan. That’s the greater purpose, and when you argue over a specific number, you’re usually missing the point, because these numbers aren’t being put up in controlled, identical environments. Eras are different. Rules are different. Players are different, nutrition is different, exercise is different, ballparks are different. The hell with the numbers, specifically. That’s not where the significance is.
The point of 4,000 isn’t 4,000. The point of 4,000 is that Ichiro has had a really outstanding and lengthy career as a professional baseball player. That wouldn’t be any less true at 3,998, and nothing’s going to change at 4,001. From the number, we know a few things: Ichiro has been really good. Also, Ichiro has been really good for a while. He’s one of the most talented all-around players of the generation, even if his style has been unorthodox, and even if he’s been a lightning rod for criticism with occasionally racist undertones. Yeah, he’s been a slap hitter, and those hits he’s slapped have been valuable hits. He’s slapped a hell of a lot of them. He also hit that homer off Mariano Rivera. Pity the people who haven’t seen the magic for what it’s been. That’s not Ichiro’s problem.
The number 4,000 mattered because it represented a specific opportunity to recognize Ichiro for all that he’s done since he was virtually a kid on another continent. When a player is piling up impressive statistics, you want there to be a chance to honor him, to appreciate him. The fact of the matter is that we don’t appreciate elite-level talent on a daily basis. We don’t really have the capacity. We need to schedule these things, and so records and round numbers are arbitrary but necessary. In that sense, people got to look forward to their designated moment of Ichiro appreciation. There was a target, and so upon Ichiro’s 4,00th hit, or 2,722nd hit, everybody agreed that was the time to honor his career. If not at 4,000, when would Ichiro have gotten his due? Ichiro deserves these moments — he’s earned these moments — and you have to choose some number, or else the moment won’t ever happen. This number was easy.
Earlier this season, Felix Hernandez picked up career win number 100, and I think I wrote a pretty similar post. It wasn’t about career win number 100 — it was about what that kind of number meant, and what it took to reach that number in so little time. This is about what 4,000 means, and what it took to reach that number over so many years. Ichiro actually has 27 career hits in the playoffs. (Ichiro has been in the playoffs.) So 4,000 isn’t even necessarily accurate. But boy is that ever not the point. This is about taking a moment to appreciate one of the most electrifying players the game has ever seen. There was no mandate to do that right at 4,000. Just make sure you do it sometime, because this is for your benefit, not his. We’re kind of the point of the whole damn thing.