ichiro“Let me ask you this question” is how Pete Rose started his answer.

We were in the midst of a 20-minute phone interview Monday, ostensibly to talk about fanDaction.com and his new fantasy baseball venture with that site where he picks players for daily games and competitors make picks to try to beat his players.

We burned through that topic in about three minutes, with Rose concluding, “We’re not trying to put FanDuel and DraftKings out of business. We’re trying to get some fans to come over to fanDaction and have some fun with us.”

A few more minutes of baseball talk followed — a chat about longevity and his three-decades-ago pursuit of Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record, which I’ll get to more in a minute.

But I had to ask him about Ichiro Suzuki. At the time of the interview, Ichiro had 4,252 hits combined in Japan and the Major Leagues — 1,278 in Japan, nearly 3,000 in the majors. He had three more last night, bringing him to 4,255 — one short of the total Rose put up entirely in the majors. Ichiro closing in on that hallowed number has created a lot of discussion about how we should treat his accomplishments in Japan. I asked Rose, “What do you think of that discussion?”

“Let me ask you this question,” he said from his home in Nevada. “When you take Ichiro’s Japanese hits into account, are those his professional hits?”

I answered yes.

“OK,” Rose, continued. “Then why aren’t you counting my professional hits in the minor leagues? I had close to 500 hits in the minor leagues. If you’re going to count his professional hits, count my professional hits.”

He wasn’t being particularly combative — just blunt, with a healthy dose of pride as well.

If only this discussion was that easy.

Instead, it’s fascinatingly layered — and it wraps around what I believe is one of the greatest “what-ifs” in baseball history.

THE PIECES

Rose was a hit machine who amassed his 4,256 knocks over 24 seasons. He played in 3,562 games and had 15,890 plate appearances — also all-time MLB records. He chased down Cobb’s record in 1985, in his second-to-last season, when he was the Reds’ player-manager. If not for that dual role, Rose says, he might not have made it.

“What happened to me, which was really good for the record, is that I was traded from Montreal back to Cincinnati to be player-manager. When I was traded back in August (of 1984), I played every day the rest of the year. I hit .365,” Rose says, citing the exact statistic correctly, a trend that recurred during our conversation. “What did that do? That made it OK for me to make the team the next year. If I had hit .165, I would have been taking a roster spot. I was playing for a shot to make the team at the end of 1984 in 1985.”

And near the end of 1985, he got the record.

“I don’t think it was a thing that I badly wanted to beat Ty Cobb, but I happened to have longevity and I got paid to go get hits, score runs and win games,” Rose said. “I was just doing my job. I wasn’t playing in 1985 to beat Cobb. I was just having fun playing.”

Just as crucial to the record as the end of his career, though — and probably more so — was the beginning. By the time he was 27 1/2 years old at the end of the 1968 season — his sixth in the majors — Rose already had 1,109 hits. Start him off at that point — an age not arbitrarily chosen, of course — and he barely makes it to 3,000.

Ichiro, with an October birthday, was 27 1/2 when he made his MLB debut with the Mariners in 2001. By then, he had amassed those 1,278 hits in nine Japanese seasons — 1,242 of them in the final seven, when he was a regular. So he started when he was 18, but really he started when he was 20.

Ichiro amassed those 1,278 hits in a scant 951 games, batting .353 in seasons shorter than those in the majors. The most he ever played in a year in Japan was 135. He could have amassed the same number of games in six full MLB seasons — in fact, he did, playing in 957 in his first six years with the Mariners.

Ichiro piled up an absurd 1,354 hits in his first six years in MLB, 76 more than he had in six fewer games over the duration of his career in Japan. And therein lines the great, impossible what-if: had Ichiro made his MLB debut, say, six years earlier — at age 21, when he was already playing at a high level in Japan, with a swing tailor-made to get hits in any league — how many MLB hits would he have now?

Instead, we only know what we know. And we have the debate: how do we view Ichiro’s hits in Japan?

When Ichiro, now with the Marlins, was in town last week to play the Twins I asked him about that in the context of the pursuit of 4,256. Through his interpreter, Allen Turner, he said this: “Obviously, I just go out and do what I do. What people say and what people think about that record, I just leave it to them. All I can do is what I do. What people say and think, I can’t control. That’s for them to decide.”

SYMBOLS OF EACH GENERATION

From the 30,000-foot view, it’s much easier to separate these two players and appreciate each for their accomplishments without giving into the impossible attempt at comparison. One could even argue that both — in their own ways — perfectly symbolize their generation of players.

Rose was the consummate grinder. He was immensely talented, but the “Charlie Hustle” moniker is as much a part of his legend as his amazing career totals. He was able to play to age 45, he said, because of “love of the game and good teammates.” He also believes not smoking or drinking helped prolong his career. But offseasons back then were a little different than they are now.

“The only thing I did in the winter time is play basketball. I don’t think many of the guys when I played were the types of guys to go to the gym and work out,” Rose says. “I never hit during the offseason because I was the type of guy that once I started hitting the next season, I wanted to hit every day.”

Ichiro is similarly driven, but his aura is one of being almost impossibly cool. He arrived in the visiting clubhouse at Target Field last week wearing what looked to be a perfectly tailored thin denim suit. As he dressed for the game, he put on socks that had individual compartments for his toes. And as he talked to reporters, he stretched on what I could only describe as an electronic foam roller.

His routine is the stuff of legends, and his physique, even now at age 42, remains what it always has been: lean, strong, almost built like an elite cyclist. His global impact on baseball cannot be overstated

And even with his late start, in addition to the 4,256 mark he’s closing in on 3,000 hits in the majors — just 23 short after Monday’s three-hit game.

Even Rose says this of Ichiro: “Don’t get me wrong: Ichiro is going to be a Hall of Fame player because he’s going to get to 3,000 hits, he got to 200 hits 10 times and he’s been a good defensive player.”

Banned from baseball since 1989 for betting on games while he was managing the Reds, Rose is not in the Hall of Fame. His numbers, instead, have to speak for themselves.

I asked both of the hit kings if they’d ever met.

“I don’t think I have,” Ichiro said through his interpreter.

“No,” Rose said. “But I watch him all the time.”

THE RECORD

The conversation with Rose ventured into the territory of 4,256 hits and whether anyone would amass that many again — solely in the majors, taking Ichiro out of the equation for a moment.

“I think most of the longevity records are going to stand just because of the way players approach the game today,” Rose said. “Several years ago, I remember the New York Post saying (Derek) Jeter was going to break my record. … But he was just too old to get 4,000 more at bats.”

But often when we can’t envision a repeat of the past because of shifting circumstances, it blinds us to the possibility of a future where records are broken because of different reasons. What if training and nutrition becomes so advanced that 40 becomes the new 30 and 50 becomes the new 40 for athletes?

Or more simply: few would have conceived of Rose’s record being touched when he set it three decades ago, but few could have conceived at the time of a slender hit machine from Japan coming along and amassing 262 hits in one season and one fewer than Rose in his career if we add it up in a certain way.

To that end, at the conclusion of the interview, Rose brought the subject back to Ichiro once more. And again, the introduction was familiar.

“I have a question for you,” he began. “What is your feeling on these guys that are going to count Ichiro’s hits in Japan?”

I told him I thought most people would conclude that hits in Japan are not equal to hits in MLB — that the discussion is driven mostly by the curiosity of the combined total as it relates to the type of “what-if” question that defines sports.

He latched onto that, offering this quote: “I take my hat off to Japanese baseball. I don’t mean to be a negative person because I’m not at all. But Japanese baseball is not big-league baseball. I don’t care what anybody says.”

Thing is, I don’t think there are a lot of people who disagree. They’re just curious. Maybe Rose, deep down, is a little curious, too.

He agreed that debates like this are what make sports fun. The last thing he said on the subject is the same thing all of us are left with:

“We don’t know.”

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