It was somewhat lost in the multi-faceted excitement of Wednesday’s 11-3 victory over the Angels, but Ichiro’s pursuit of the Isao Harimoto’s hits record is a big, big deal in Japan.
The 68-year-old Harimoto, who had a long and distinguished career (he debuted in 1959 and retired in 1981) is the only Japanese player to achieve 3,000 hits — 3,085, to be exact. He also hit 504 homers and had a .319 career average, making him one of their all-time greats.
Ichiro had 1,278 hits in Japan for the Orix Blue Wave from 1992-2000, and now has 1,807 for the Mariners, counting his two last night. That’s a total of 3,085 — tied with Harimoto.
When he surpasses Harimoto’s total, does that make him the Japanese hits leader, considering his career has been split between Japan and North America? I’m sure that topic is being hotly debated on sports talk radio in Japan and in newspaper columns.
To me, it’s a moot point. Both can claim tremendous achievements. Ichiro will have the most hits of any Japanese professional player. Harimoto will remain the hit king of the Japanese major leagues. Each individual fan and observer can judge for him or herself the significance of those milestones, much like each fan in 1961 could judge for himself how Roger Maris hitting 61 homers in a 162-game season compared to Babe Ruth hitting 60 in a 154-game season. If you feel there’s an asterisk needed for Ichiro, you can apply your own.
Here’s the opinion of Harimoto himself, who traveled to Seattle to watch Ichiro and was in attendance Wednesday. He spoke to reporters before last night’s game.
“Yes, it’s a real record,” he said of Ichiro’s combined mark.
But asked if he considers himself the record holder in Japan, Harimoto replied (through an interpreter), “A hundred years from now, I’m still the record holder in Japan.”
(Freelance journalist Brad Lefton, a fluent Japanese speaker who has written numerous outstanding articles for the Seattle Times on Japanese ballplayers, has an in-depth piece on Harimoto ready to go. We’ll be publishing it after the record is broken. I don’t want to give too much away, but he’s had a fascinating life. I mean Harimoto, not Lefton — but I hear Brad’s brother is the finest magician in greater St.Louis).
Harimoto pointed out that in Japan, great hitters are walked much more often than Ichiro has been over here. That fact, he believes, makes it difficult for a player in Japan to surpass his mark.
“If you hit that many, pitchers are always going to walk you,” he said. “Here, Ichiro could have five hits and they’re still going to pitch to him. In Japan if you have two hits in the game, they are going to walk you or worse (he pointed at his head, indicating the hitter would be knocked down or hit).”
Harimoto apparently pegged Ichiro years ago as the man likely to surpass his total.
“Actually when he was in Japan, I told him that he was going to break my record,” he said. “That was probably like 15 years ago. I don’t remember telling him that, but Ichiro remembers very well. He told me about it.
“At that time I could tell Ichiro was already really good.”
He still is, and after tonight, Ichiro could very well have more hits than any Japanese player in history.