There was a time when I dearly worshiped Pete Rose. Best to get that disclaimer out of the way from the start. I came of baseball age as the Big Red Machine was moving down the assembly line, adding pieces here and there.
With every black mark against Rose’s character since the gambling scandal — his dealings with his family members, and going to jail for filing false tax returns, part of a plea arrangement that let him avoid more serious tax charges — I felt a little more of my childlike devotion chipped away.
What doesn’t change, and what won’t change, is what Rose did on the field. And it bothers me a little — perhaps more than it should — that Ichiro Suzuki has been crowned in some quarters as the new ‘hit king.’ As of this writing, Ichiro has 4,258 hits, of which 2,980 have come in the U.S. big leagues. That leaves 1,278 from his nine seasons in Japan.
And that’s exactly the problem. It’s hard enough to compare different eras — and ERAs — within Major League Baseball. Now we’re supposed to believe that the U.S. and Japan are on equal footing?
It begs a few questions. My favorite: Why, if Ichiro was merely switching from one “big league” to another, was he eligible for the Rookie of the Year award in the U.S.? He arrived on American soil in 2001 in a big way: 242 hits, a .350 batting average, 56 stolen bases, the league leaders all. He won a close vote for Most Valuable Player, edging Jason Giambi (38 home runs, 120 RBIs) by 8 points.
The Rookie of the Year voting wasn’t close at all. Ichiro nearly doubled the point total — after nearly tripling the WAR rating — of second-place C.C. Sabathia. So Ichiro is a rookie. Got it.
Except, depending on who you listen to, the level of play of Nippon Professional Baseball, the top league in Japan is perhaps the caliber of AAA here. Or maybe AAAA, that level at which players bring AAA competition to its knees, then have little to no success in the majors. If you’re old enough, think Paul Householder. If that predates you, think of some of the pitchers the Reds have recalled from Louisville, where they received rave reviews, and then returned to the big club just in time to get hit around a little more.
And, in fairness, there are people who believe Japan and U.S. big league baseball are on par. Bleacher Report cited these examples.
Former Kansas City Royals manager Trey Hillman did an interview with ESPN.com a few years back regarding his years as a manager in Japan in which he insisted that what they play in NPB is “major league-caliber baseball.”
There’s also a statistical argument for the notion that NPB is on par with MLB. Clay Davenport of Baseball Prospectus crunched the numbers back in 2002 and concluded, “By historical standards, the present-day Central and Pacific Leagues are fully deserving of the ‘major league’ label.”
But it’s hard for me to look beyond the 4-A argument. Tuffy Rhodes, enter and sign in, please. Have you heard of Tuffy Rhodes? Prior to two days ago, my only recollection of Rhodes was my sports editor at the time drafting Rhodes in our office home run derby pool because the outfielder hit three home runs on Opening Day. Yeah, we were scrambling to get the drafting done and were still picking players on Opening Day. Count that as one deadline blown.
Before that 1994 season, Rhodes had hit eight home runs in 311 plate appearances. And Rhodes finished that ’94 season with exactly eight, in 308 plate appearances. Consistency, thy name is Tuffy, as Vin Scully might say.
Rhodes fell on such hard times in that 1994 season that he played only 95 games for the Cubs. And the next year, he played a combined 23 games with the Cubs and Red Sox, and in 45 plate appearances, the Confines weren’t so friendly, and the Green Monster wasn’t close enough. He went homerless.
But Rhodes went to Japan and found it wasn’t so tuff over there. In 13 seasons, spanning three teams, he hit 464 home runs, an average of 36 per season, thank you very much. He hit at least 40 homers seven times, and maxed out at 55 in 2001. In 2008, at age 39, he still hit 40.
If Tuffy Rhodes goes back too far, do you remember Wladimir Balentien? The name sounded familiar when it came up in reference to Japanese baseball. Balentien played parts of the three seasons in the majors, mostly for Seattle, and then a little for the Reds in 2009. Between those franchises, he hit 15 home runs in 559 plate appearances.
Balentien didn’t make the show for the Reds in 2010, but did play 116 games for Louisville, and in 452 plate appearances, he hit 25 homers.
The outfielder then began an exceedingly long road trip, heading to Japan in 2011. He has played for Yakult since 2011, and in his first four seasons there, he hit 31, 31, 60 and 31 again. He hit only one in 52 plate appearances last season, but has 15 in 264 plate appearances this season.
Several days ago, Rose gave his own opinion about Ichiro’s milestone.
“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.”
And I wince a little more. Not because I disagree with Rose’s basic premise. I just don’t need him to be deciding what other people should think.
Although I guess I understand if Rose has gender references on his mind. Mickey Mantle once said of Rose: “If I had played my career hitting singles like Pete, I’d wear a dress.”
In short order, Ichiro is going to rack up his 3,000th hit in the U.S. That alone speaks to his accomplishments.
But I’ll pass on decreeing Ichiro as the “hit king.” After all, the “home run king” in the U.S. is Barry Bonds, who hit 762.
What’s that? You refuse to recognize Bonds because of what got into him starting in the late ’90s? Then certainly you’re a Henry Aaron man. He hammered 755.
Whichever you choose, remember that Sadaharu Oh hit 868 home runs in 22 seasons in the land of Tuffy and Wladimir. I’m keeping my kings a little closer to the vest.