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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

September 14, 2009 at 2:00 PM

Robert Whiting on Ichiro’s feat

ichi200.jpg

The Associated Press photo above shows a woman in Tokyo poring over the special edition that one of the newspapers put out yesteday (today) to commemorate Ichiro’s record-breaking 200th hit. This is a big, big deal in Japan — bigger than it is here, as Geoff pointed out in a recent story.

I remember doing an interview a few years ago with author Robert Whiting, whom I (and many others) consider the foremost American observer of Japanese baseball. He is the author of the classic “You Gotta Have Wa,” as well as 2004’s “The Meaning of Ichiro.” He wrote in the latter book of the pride that the Japanese people took in Ichiro’s emergence as a major-league superstar in 2001. “He made them feel like, ‘Ah, now we’ve made it,” he told me. ” ‘We’re not just people who make products anymore. We’re real flesh and blood. We can be heroes just as much as Chow Yun-Fat.’ It was really a big deal.”

I have stayed in contact with Whiting (who lives most of the year in Japan) via e-mail over the years, and I wrote to him late last week to ask what the reaction in Japan was as Ichiro neared Willie Keeler’s record for consecutive 200-hit seasons. I haven’t had a chance to reach him since Ichiro got his 200th hit yesterday, but I think his pre-record comments are interesting enough to post:

“Yes, feelings are high. NHK’s “Closeup Gendai”, the leading TV program on current affairs, aired a 30-minute documentary about the feat on Thursday night in Japan. The Baseball Magazine publishing company just published a full-length non-fiction book about the feat. There are no doubt other programs and publications on the way and when Ichiro breaks the record it will be front page news in all the sports dailies with headlines in red and black headlines of Kanji (Chinese characters) heralding the feat.

Japanese ask me all the time, “What do Americans think about this feat?” “Does it mean Ichiro will be inducted into the Hall of Fame?” When I tell them that people across America admire the feat but are not exactly glued to the TV the way they were during the McGwire-Sosa home run race and that this feat does not automatically guarantee a HOF slot (after all, Roger Maris never made it in), there is disappointment. I tell them that if Ichiro had played in Keeler’s time he would have perhaps been considered the best player in the game. But I also cite various Best MLB Player studies–ESPN, Elias, Baseball Encyclopedia–in which Ichiro ranks only in the the 40’s, because of lack of power stats. This too is greeted with dismay.

Of course, I also point out that many MLB players, coaches and managers would put Ichiro as a starter on an all MLB team because of his batting skill, great arm and foot speed. And that when he gets his 3,000th hit, which he will achieve in the next five years or so, that will guarantee him his HOF slot.

In short I tell them that Americans respect the feat but are not as enamored of him as Japanese are…

In fairness, Japanese are running out of baseball heroes. Ichiro is the only one who is making a mark this year with the possible exception of Hideki Matsui. So Ichiro feeds the national ego, and coming on the heels of the WBC wins cements Ichiro’s spot as THE GREATEST JAPANESE BASEBALL PLAYER OF ALL TIME.

…also footage of Ken Griffey Jr. tickling Ichiro has also caught Japan’s attention. It shows he’s back in everyone’s good graces, on the Mariners, after last year’s acrimony.”

I think Whiting undersells Ichiro’s Hall of Fame chances — I think he’s a lock right now — but there’s no question that outside of Seattle, Ichiro’s feat of nine straight 200-hit seasons was barely acknowledged. And even in Seattle, I think most sports fans this weekend were more focused on the Seahawks and Huskies than Ichiro.

Yet this is a major accomplishment, one that I’d rank as No. 2 on Ichiro’s list, right behind his single-season hits record of 262, set in 2004. The Japanese people have a right to celebrate and be proud.

I can only imagine the increase in tickling incidents among Japanese baseball players.

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