In five decades, when we all have a government-mandated Siri module implanted where the spine meets the brain, someone will ask Siri who holds the Major League Baseball record for career hits. Pete Rose’s picture will flash in his or her virtual consciousness. Hopefully the underwear ad. There won't be a debate, just like there isn’t now. Pete Rose holds the record for MLB career hits. That will be true in a week, it’s going to be true in a year, and it’s probably going to be true in 50 years.
So, no, there isn’t a controversy. If I had to draw a line at what constitutes the Major League Baseball career hits record, it would probably be the player who has the most career hits playing Major League Baseball. It's a very narrow definition.
However, if we’re talking about the "Hit King," an arbitrary designation that was pulled out of the sky, well ...
Oh, yeah, I can argue about that. This is the nectar of baseball, of baseball-related debates, picking and choosing what you include and exclude. Roger Maris played in 10 more games in his record-setting 61-homer season than Babe Ruth did, and he hit just one more home run. However, it’s absolutely appropriate, if not necessary, to point out that Ruth didn’t have to face an integrated league. You can’t argue that 60 is greater than 61. You can make a case that Ruth’s accomplishment is more impressive.
Fight! Fight! Fight! Arguing in circles about things that happened six decades ago is what separates us from the football-loving animals. I love it so.
So now we have the case of Rose v. Ichiro. I know it’s hard to tell them apart, but Rose is the dunderhead who says things like ...
"It sounds like in Japan,’’ Rose told USA TODAY Sports, "they’re trying to make me the Hit Queen.
"Can you imagine? That would mean I would have ovaries and be a lesser person," Rose probably continued. "And would I have to marry Ichiro? What if I can’t sire an heir? This is all very complicated and unfair."
Ichiro is the one who is a universally beloved icon who just wants you to sit down and enjoy home plate with him, perhaps with a glass of wine.
Ichiro now holds record for most runs scored by a Japanese player. So here’s home plate: http://t.co/OUEL3APFU8 pic.twitter.com/N1502hn3nD— WBC Baseball (@WBCBaseball) April 27, 2015
But we’re not here to rank personalities, not yet. We’re here to make a case that Ichiro’s career hit total can impress you just as much as, if not more than, Rose’s career hit total. It’s easy enough. Here, start with:
Level of play
I’m pretty comfortable believing the pitchers who appeared in the Pacific League from 1992 to 2000 are, at the very least, as talented as the pitchers who appeared in the National League from 1963 to 1971. There's no way to prove that Koji Noda could have had the same success as Al McBean against the same competition, but the three-decade gap is enough for me. Athletes get better exponentially over the years. You can see it in track and field stats, just as you can see it in any other sport that’s easy to measure unambiguously.
Or, to put it another way, Ichiro would have had at least as many hits in his early 20s if he's facing the 1960s National League pitching.
That makes for a slippery slope that David Eckstein’s 1,414 career hits are somehow more impressive than anything Ty Cobb ever did because Eckstein, with his modern training and nutrition, would absolutely crush a league from 100 years ago. I’m not going too deep into that argument, but it’s possible to look at what Ichiro did against modern Japanese pitching and think it was as meaningful as what Rose did in the ‘60s.
If you want to get into the specialization of relievers, and how every modern hitter has it tougher than their predecessors because they have to face 99-mph specialists and platoon-happy managers, this would also be the place to lodge that complaint.
Mostly, though, I reject the idea that the Japanese leagues are some sort of third-tier league compared to the National League of the '60s. It's not hard to do.
The context of Rose’s longevity
If you’ve sent me an email about this before, don't worry about sending a follow-up. You’re not going to change my mind. Leave a comment under the article, though, and I’ll get right back to you.
From the time Rose was 41 until he retired, he was one of the worst players in the league. He averaged -0.5 WAR per season, and even though that wasn’t a stat back then, it’s not like the eyeballs were telling a different story. In 1983, Rose hit .245 with a .286 slugging percentage in 555 at-bats. He ran like he was forever looking for a contact lens that wasn't there, and he didn’t field well. He was 42.
In any other situation, that player doesn’t have a job offer that winter. He probably isn’t looking too hard after embarrassing himself like that, really, and he certainly wouldn’t get another chance to accumulate 500 at-bats in a season. But for Rose, there was a record to chase, and it was the kind of record that patience, opportunity and accumulation would break.
To be fair to Rose, he was something of a surprising on-base machine in his record-setting season. He was still a one-tool player, though, with a dark, chilly void where the remaining tools were supposed to be, and he kept getting starts because he was tight with the manager, a fella by the name of Pete Rose.
That doesn't all mean that Pete Rose doesn't hold the record for most career hits in MLB history. It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a fantastic player in his prime, and that the record isn’t absolutely extraordinary, a testament to talent, longevity and good health.
It does mean that we can say things like, "Pfft, if you make Ichiro a player-manager until he’s 52 and give him 400 at-bats every year, he could break Rose’s record in the majors, too." If Rose got the record by playing longer than he otherwise would have without a record to chase, we get to imagine Ichiro being the Julio Franco of the outfield, just to get him closer and closer to the record.
Even if Ichiro is having a delightful resurgence this year, it’s his first strong season in a while, so you’re free to add and subtract bonus points as you see fit. But Rose’s record wasn't an organic accomplishment. It was a record that was set because there was a record to set. I’m OK with slapping the hits from Ichiro’s early 20s together with his hits from his still-productive current career and suggesting it’s just as impressive.
Ichiro is a beloved idol; Pete Rose bugs me
You might think it’s hypocritical for a Barry Bonds fan to include this reasoning. Fair enough, but I would suggest that Rose is obnoxious enough to make me feel at peace with this emotional paradox. Because I like Ichiro more than Rose, I'm more likely to accept arguments in his favor.
Just laying my biases out for everyone to see, that’s all. But it’s not like you're going to be completely objective about this.
Add it up, and I’m willing to entertain the argument. I’m willing to have this discussion in a loud bar as our voices escalate and escalate. Pete Rose is the all-time leader for hits in Major League Baseball history, and that’s indisputable, but what Ichiro did, spanning two decades and two countries, in an era of LOOGYs and power closers, while performing at a high level and not writing himself into the lineup, just might be more impressive.
The important thing is that we get to argue about baseball. Come, argue about baseball with us. Pete Rose might not be the Hit King after all. Instead, I’m willing to declare him to be the Co-Chair of the Hit Committee, subject to recall and general elections.
That’s still pretty great, you know.