"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, and 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 — putting him four short of the total Rose put up entirely in the majors.
Ichiro closing in on that hallowed number has created a lot of discussion, of which Rose has a certain opinion. Hence his question:
"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."
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.
Rose was a hit machine who amassed his 4,256 knocks over 24 seasons, passing Ty Cobb near the end of 1985. By the time he was 27½ 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 27½ when he made his MLB debut with the Mariners in 2001. By then, he had amassed 1,278 hits in a scant 951 games in Japan, batting .353 in seasons shorter than those in the majors. The most games 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 already was 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?
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."
Rose already has decided, reiterating numerous times some variation of this quote: "Japanese baseball is not big-league baseball. I don't care what anybody says."
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.
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 of is the same thing all of us are left with:
"We don't know."