By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Only two players in the history of the game have recorded 4,000 major league hits – Ty Cobb and Pete Rose. Ichiro Suzuki of the New York Yankees joined that list Wednesday. Suzuki spent his first nine seasons – and recorded his first 1,278 hits – in the Japan Pacific League.
For Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland and 2011 Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander, whether the hits came in Japan’s major leagues or those of the United States really does not matter.
“That league is just as competitive, or pretty doggone close to as competitive as this league is,” Verlander said. “He’s shown that nothing would have been different had he played here versus there. He came over here and immediately had 10 straight years of 200 hits or whatever it was, so it wasn’t a case of he was succeeding against slightly inferior competition. No, he came over here and thrived immediately. I think you can look at his career as a big picture and not just separate them.”
Leyland said he has been told the Japanese media is paying much more attention than the U.S. media but that the accomplishment deserves accolades regardless of how the hits were split.
“I make a big deal about it,” Leyland said. “It’s just mind-boggling to think that a guy could get 4,000 hits. I don’t care what league you’re in or where you’re playing. You get 4,000 hits, that’s unbelievable. How many guys have got 4,000 hits? Two.”
“I have all the respect in the world for him,” Leyland added. “I don’t care where you do it, that’s quite an accomplishment.”
In Verlander’s view, what makes Suzuki so successful is the best eye-hand coordination Verlander has ever seen, the ability to foul off or hit nasty pitches, and incredible speed. Suzuki averaged 37.7 stolen bases through his first 12 seasons in the majors, which he spent with the Seattle Mariners.
Leyland and Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter, who originally met Suzuki before the 2002 All-Star Game, talked about Suzuki’s ability to hit for power even though he largely chose to hit for average instead.
“The thing about him is, from what everybody tells me, is so interesting – I’ve seen a little bit of it myself – is that in batting practice, he can hit them as far as anybody,” Leyland said. “He hits bombs in batting practice when he wants to.”
“You’ll see him turn it loose, and other times he’ll slap it by the third baseman, whatever,” the Tigers skipper added. “He’s an artist, really, with the bat, from what I’ve seen. Very impressive.”
Leyland and Verlander crossed paths with Suzuki during the 2007 All-Star Game, when Leyland managed, Verlander pitched and Suzuki hit an inside-the-park home run. Before the game, though, Suzuki gave a pregame talk that no one wants to repeat but that had everyone in stitches.
“I didn’t plan it or anything,” Leyland said. “Somebody said, ‘Ichiro, what’ve you got to say?’ and he started blaring this stuff out, and the guys are laughing their fannies off, and so was I.”
Verlander grins as he recalls Suzuki’s talk. He also remembers what a big deal it was to be on the same team as one of the best hitters at the time, and looking back, maybe one of the best of all time.
“I’m wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, this is my first All-Star Game, and here’s somebody that’s a superstar in every sense of the word, been around for a long time and you get to share a locker room with him, and you get to see him stand up and make a joke like that,” Verlander said.
“You don’t know these guys’ personalities when you’re playing against them – especially Ichiro, he’s pretty guarded when he’s out there on the field – but then he stands up there and makes a joke like that, makes everybody laugh, and it’s pretty funny,” Verlander added. “I’m in my locker like, ‘Oh man, that was really cool,’ and he goes out there and hits an inside-the-park home run. You hardly ever see that anyway, and to do it in the All-Star Game is pretty cool.”
According to ESPN, only five players have gotten 4,000 even including their hits in the minor leagues. That list, too, is rife with Hall of Famers: Cobb, Rose, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Jigger Statz. Now it also includes Suzuki, who will likely be enshrined in Cooperstown along with Cobb, Aaron and Musial.
“He’s impressive,” Verlander said. “That inside-the-park home run is something I’ll always remember.”