Friday, September 24, 2010

Ichiro and Bautista--History in Different Forms?

     By Ross Newhan

     Two impressive offensive accomplishments have been somewhat glazed over amid the last shadows of the pennant races.

     In the case of the one accomplishment--Ichiro Suzuki's 10th straight season (in his first 10 major league seasons) of 200 or more hits--the word impressive doesn't do it justice. It is a remarkable stretch of hitting that stands alone in all of baseball history and will put Ichiro in the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, although he is certain to keep playing given his durability and success.

    In the case of the second accomplishment--Toronto third baseman Jose Bautista becoming only the 26th player to hit 50 home runs in a season--he and all of us are still caught in the cynical tentacles of the steroid era, meaning that, unfortunate as it may be, he is having to cope with the question of how did a player who hit 13 home runs last year and never more than 16 in six previous seasons suddenly hit 52 through Friday.

    Bautista is a solid and respected baseball citizen of whom his manager, Cito Gaston, has characterized as one of the hardest workers and most coachable players on his team and "when you have those traits going for you, well, you have the chance to get better, and that's what has happened in Jose's case."

   Unfortunately, however, he finds himself painted into the same corner as Brady Anderson and Luis  Gonzalez. Anderson hit 50 home runs for Baltimore in 1996, although he never hit more than 24 in any of his other 14 seasons, and Gonzalez hit 57 for Arizona in 2001, although he never hit more than 31 in any of his other 18 seasons.

    Bautista has said he understands the questions being raised "because of what has happened in the past," but he adds that baseball now has the "strictest testing program" in sports and he has never tested positive for a performance enhancing substance. However, baseball still does not test for human growth hormone at the major league level, so the questions and cynicisms linger.

    In the context of analysis and historical knowledge there is no one I respect more than Tim Kurkjian, a former newspaper colleague and now an analyst for ESPN.

   "As you know," Kurkjian said by phone, "in baseball guys can get really good or really bad almost overnight for no apparent reason. All indications are that Bautista has had a career year cleanly and in the right way.

  "Unfortunately, we are still so close to the steroid era that he gets lumped in with all those other guys. I mean, we are still so close to that era and there are still so many gaps in the testing program, that 20 years from now there may be new designer drugs that will be forcing us to ask the same questions Bautista is facing."

   For Ichiro, amid a disasterous Seattle season (with apologies to King Felix Hernandez), it has been business as usual, the 200 hits rolling or lining off his bat as he swings it on his way to first base, almost a step out of the batter's box and seemingly not having lost any of his quickness since his U.S. arrival in 2001, when he led the American League with 242 hits and a .350 batting average, a prelude to 2004, when he again led the league with 262 hits and a .372 average.

   "What Ichiro has done in the context of 200 hit seasons is unbelievable," Kurkjian said. "Consider this: During his streak of 10 straight years, nine teams have failed to have even one player get 200 hits."

   The only other player in major league history to get 200 hits in 10 seasons was Pete Rose, and he did it over a stretch of 15 seasons during his 24 year career. The only American League player to get 200 hits in as many as nine seasons was Ty Cobb, and he needed a stretch of 18 seasons during a 24 year career.

    "We think of guys like Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs as being pretty phenomenal," Kurkjian said, "but they never did what Ichiro has done."

    Soon to be 37, it is not a stretch to believe that Ichiro would be on his way toward Rose's all-time hits record if he had duplicated his scorching seasons in Japan between the ages of 20 to 26: .385, .342, .356, .345, .358, .343 and ..387. As it is, he already has over 2,200 hits in the major leagues, and if he matches the 1,290 hits Rose had after 36, he would eclipse the 3,500 that has been achieved only by Tris Speaker, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Cobb and Rose.

   Almost always batting leadoff for the Mariners, it is mystifying why Ichiro has sometimes drawn criticism for being a selfish player who thinks only of getting his hits and not driving in runs, as if more than 200 hits a season, every season, is not contribution enough for a leadoff hitter who is also expected to win his 10th straight Gold Glove for fielding excellence this year. Among major league outfielders, Ichiro still has one of baseball's strongest throwing arms, if not the strongest.

     His has been another season of historic proportion.

     For Bautista, history comes with a question mark, the way it is now and will continue to be for any player soaring over 50 homers who has never been in that neighborhood before.      



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