posted on Oct, 2 2004 @ 07:42 AM
Ichiro: The Hit King
Mariners star supplants Sisler's season hits record, thrills home crowd
By JOHN HICKEY
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
It was more than a celebration of the two greatest single-season hit makers in baseball.
It was Baseball History 101.
Ichiro Suzuki came to Safeco Field last night on the verge of displacing George Sisler as the most prolific producer of hits that baseball has ever
Over the span of a little less than three hours, Ichiro did that, then did one better. He singled three times in front of a standing, screaming
adoring public to push the new hits standard to 259 in one season.
It got raucous in Safeco Field after all three hits, and the game stopped for about 10 minutes after the second, the one that propelled him past
Sisler as the single-season leader.
But if the on-field salutations and the exchanges with the five members of the Sisler family were to be expected, Ichiro's reception in the Seattle
clubhouse after the game, an 8-3 Seattle win, was not.
He walked into the clubhouse under a pyramid of bats, one held by each of his teammates. He was then doused with beer, not champagne, as the
celebration cranked up. Then before it was Ichiro's time to head out to face the media, the music was cranked up and, with teammates standing on the
counter top nearest Ichiro's locker, he broke into a spirited dance to some good ol' American hip-hop.
"Go Ichi! Go Ichi!" his teammates screamed as the new hits king let himself run free in a way he's never displayed in four years of playing baseball
in the United States.
Of course, the cries of "Go Ichi!" were virtually unneeded.
The man has been going almost nonstop since he first landed on these shores, and last night was the culmination of, well, of being Ichiro.
Being Ichiro is all about getting hits that no one else can get. And it's about getting them in numbers no one else can even dream about. With his
first hit of the night, a single chopped over third base, he had more hits in four years than any player in any four-year period.
With his second hit, he'd passed Sisler. With each hit, he had the Safeco crowd, not to mention his teammates, in a frenzy. He was swarmed at first
base by his teammates, then he went over and greeted the Sisler clan.
All the while the smile, so often absent from his face, was beaming like the full moon.
"This was definitely the most emotional I've gotten in my life," Ichiro said. "With the Sisler family, with my limited English, I just talked to them,
thanked them for coming to Seattle."
For one brief shining moment, Ichiro, the first Japanese position player to make it in North America, and Sisler, the man Ty Cobb once suggested might
be the best baseball player ever, stood on level ground.
That moment was the first inning, with the Mariners and the Texas Rangers playing the first game of the last series of 2004.
Sisler pounded out 257 hits in his best season, 1920, a year after the Black Sox scandal and a year before a young punk named Babe Ruth redefined the
sport by starting the Yankees off on the greatest winning spree in baseball history by the simple act of putting hickory on horsehide.
Ichiro proved Sisler's equal in the first inning when he took an 0-2 pitch from Texas starter Ryan Drese and, with typical bat control, chopped the
ball over Ranger third baseman Hank Blalock for his 257th hit.
Time stopped when Ichiro got to first base. And that -- fireworks, two tips of the caps and unrelenting chants of "I-Chi-Ro! I-Chi-Ro!" -- was just
the beginning. A full house, including five members of the Sisler family, stood and saluted the tie.
And the evening's date with history had scarcely begun.
Come the bottom of the third inning, Ichiro was engulfed by a standing ovation as he walked to the plate. Drese tried to bust him inside with the
first pitch, but missed. Ichiro then fouled off two outside pitches and watch as Drese missed with two way, way outside.
Coming back closer to the plate, Drese saw Ichiro react with a flick of the bat that sent a grounder sharply slithering up the middle of the diamond
for the hit that put him alone on top of the mountain.
Hit No. 258 was a classic Ichiro delivery, more proof that, given time, there's no infield that can hold him. Shortstop Michael Young never came close
to the ball as it took a crisp route over the infield dirt and into center field.
If tying the record was a moment caught in time, breaking the record was a moment to be frozen in memory. Ichiro's teammates came a little tentatively
out of the dugout, unsure what they should do. Urged on by manager Bob Melvin, the troops then stormed Ichiro at first base as the Rangers and the
umpiring crew backed away to let the celebrants have their moment.
"I wanted it for him," Melvin said of the mosh pit at first base. "I told him I don't know what to say to you. It was as emotional as you're going to
In between congratulatory hugs, handshakes and back slaps, Ichiro's batting helmet came off. That led to his teammates rubbing his head, an occasional
baseball tradition that suggests good luck can come from rubbing the head of the main man.
And on this night, no man was more main than Ichiro.
And there figures to be many more nights like this.
"He's one of the few players who has a chance to hit .400," hitting coach Paul Molitor said. "We've seen a (George) Brett and a (Tony) Gwynn make runs
"I'll tell you, I don't know if we've seen the best of Ichiro."
That question was put to Ichiro. Unlike his quick answers to other questions, he mulled this one over.
"I want to ask that question to myself," he said.
Once the crowd around first base broke, Ichiro trotted over to Section 120, Row 1, where much of the Sisler family -- daughter Frances Sisler
Drochelman, grandsons Peter Drochelman, Bo Drochelman and Ric Sisler and great-grandson Brian Drochelman -- were waiting, applauding, clearly happy
that Ichiro's race to the record books rekindled interest in George Sisler.
"I'd be totally shocked if Ichiro didn't get it," Ric Sisler said before the game. "We're here to celebrate baseball and my grandfather. I have some
mixed feelings, but Ichiro is a very professional man, like my grandfather. I hope he gets it."
Sisler's daughter had never met Ichiro before the record-setter came over to shake her hand after hit No. 258, but she'd gotten a sense of him from
news reports as the record drew ever more attention to her father's record.
"I think my father would be proud that this kind of player was the one," Mrs. Drochelman said. "My father was a true gentleman who loved the game. I'm
glad it's back out that they called him 'Gentleman George.' He liked players that respected the game. I think he would like this."
Hit No. 259 came in the sixth. A routine ground out to shortstop for anybody else, Ichiro out on a burst of speed down the first base line and Young's
throw never had a chance of getting to the base first.
After each of the hits, the grounds crew removed first base and put it aside. The baseballs, too, were pulled out of play. Jeff Idelson, representing
the Hall of Fame was on hand, hopeful of taking some bits of history back to Cooperstown, N.Y. He gave Ichiro his space last night, but today they'll
have discussion on what the Hall might expect to get.
There was no sense having discussions of what might go to the Hall before the hits were in the books. Now that they are, Ichiro will have some
decisions to make about what he'll want to keep for himself, what he might like to give away and what he might like Cooperstown to have.
Cooperstown has a warm spot in Ichiro's heart. In 2001, when it was announced that he'd won the Most Valuable Player award, he was in Cooperstown at
the time and took part in the obligatory conference call from there.
He later said one of his thrills during that trip was the chance to hold Shoeless Joe Jackson's bat.
It seems likely now that upon a return trip, he'll want to handle a bat belonging to Gentleman George Sisler.
Sisler was one of the few men the abrasive and combative Cobb admired. Sisler was the man who held the consecutive-game hitting streak Joe DiMaggio
broke. Sisler was the man who helped convince his friend Branch Rickey that a young African-American, Jackie Robinson had the right stuff to break
baseball's color barrier.
Ichiro, almost by acclamation, is the greatest hitter ever produced by Japan. Sisler. Cobb. DiMaggio. Rickey. Robinson. Ichiro. Nice lineage. Nice
history. Nice drama.
"Because of Ichiro, there's all this talk about this record," Peter Drochelman said. "I think it's great, and I hope Ichiro keeps going."
He doesn't have far to go, two days being all that's left of the 2004 season.
But look how far he's come.