- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

Some might find it amusing that in Year2 of drug testing in the major leagues, fans are all abuzz about a singles hitter. Yes, in this brave new world of Incredible Shrinking Ballplayers and deflated power stats, America is once again appreciating the merits of the one-bagger, the bingle, the blooper, the flare, the cue shot, the chopper, the slow roller, the bunt, the seeing-eye base hit — thanks to the continuing exploits of Ichiro Suzuki.

The Mariners’ Reverse Ruth is kicking up so much dust these days that he’s disinterring such long-forgotten players as Jeff Heath. Heath was the last big-leaguer to get at least 56 hits in a month — he had 58 with the Indians in ‘38 — before Ichiro did it by going 3-for-5 against the Blue Jays on the last day of August. A few nights earlier, Ichiro brought Joe “Ducky” Medwick momentarily back to life by quacking — or rather, cracking — his 50th hit for the second straight month (a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since ‘36, when the Cardinals’ Hall of Famer did it).

And now baseball’s most celebrated banjo hitter is about to take aim at George Sisler’s mark of 257 hits in a season, which has stood since the Wilson administration (1920 to be exact). You know it’s a Serious Record because no one in the last 70-odd years has managed more than 242 hits, even with the benefit of 162-game seasons. (And the player who got 242 was Ichiro, a Japanese import, in his MVP year of 2001.)

Pete Rose, the Hit King, never had more than 230 hits in a season. Wade Boggs topped out at 240, Tony Gwynn at 220, George Brett at 215. Ichiro, though, is on pace to finish with 262 — a total that, for some of us, is every bit as awe-inspiring as Barry Bonds’ 73 homers (especially since it would come without a BALCO asterisk).

The man has been so hibachi hot the past two months that folks have begun to wonder if he might run the table and hit .400, too. He did, after all, bat .432 in July and .463 in August (plus .400 in May). What would it take for him to raise his average — .371 before last night’s game — 29 points in the last month?

Answer: A veritable tsunami of singles. Trust me, I’ve crunched the numbers on this. If Ichiro continues to average 4.4 at-bats a game, he would need 71 hits in the final month to reach .400 — assuming, that is, he plays every game. A mere 70 hits would leave him at .3983. In other words, he would have to bat .522 over the last 31 games to join Ted Williams in the .400 Club. (Where Ted, no doubt, would celebrate by ordering a frozen daiquiri.)

No, .400 seems out of even Ichiro’s reach. But 258 hits are more than possible. I’ve done the calculations on this, too. All he has to do is bat .338 the rest of the way (46-for-136) and he’s there. And .338, I’ll just point out, is almost exactly his career average (.337).

The Seattle Times is giving the story the attention it deserves. With no pennant race to consume the masses this year — the M’s are renting out the basement in the AL West — the Times has taken to running a “Chasing George Sisler” box every day in the sports section, furnishing readers with all the specifics on Ichiro’s historic quest. (“Chasing George Sisler” — you’ve gotta love it. I mean, it’s been a long time since someone chased George, probably since he got caught in a rundown or something in 1930.)

His 257 hits a decade earlier are one of the few things the St. Louis Browns are remembered for — other than sending a midget, Eddie Gaedel, up to bat or moving to Baltimore and becoming the Orioles. Sisler was such a natural, he could get a hit “fallin’ outta bed,” as Pete Rose would say. Two years after his 257, he got 246, which happens to be the eighth-highest total of all time.

They have much in common, Sisler and Suzuki do. Both batted from the left side. Both weighed a modest 170 pounds (though the former was taller at 5-11). Both led the league in stolen bases. And get this: If Ichiro can conjure up 28 more hits, he and George would be the only players with more than one 240-hit season.

(Sisler also did some pitching his first few years, twice beating Senators great Walter Johnson. That’s one place, at least, where the two hitmeisters diverge. Ichiro has a heck of an outfield arm, sure, but he couldn’t outpitch Jason Johnson, much less Walter.)

In recent years, the batting average has fallen into disfavor among baseball types, who’ve come to prefer on-base percentage and slugging percentage — or the two added together — as the truest offensive measures. But with his stalking of George Sisler, Ichiro, ever the throwback, has reminded us of the sweetness of the single, of the loveliness of the leg hit, of how undeniably great you have to be to win the most classic matchup in sports, pitcher vs. batter, over and over and over again.


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