Friday, July 25, 2008

Zen Dayley: Mr. 3000, with Japanese subtitles

Well, there's one reason to check out a Mariners-Jays series where neither of the Toronto club's top two starters are pitching.*

Ichiro Suzuki needs five hits for 3,000 in his career (a feat yours truly jumped the gun on back in '07 after a tragic misreading of his Baseball Cube page). You might have misgivings about why why broadcasters and journalists persist in making a big deal out of someone's hit total when the batting title goes to the player with the highest average, or why MLB doesn't swing with the times and do what it should have done a long time ago, which is recognize the player with the highest on-base percentage as the batting champ.

(Hey, college football, which is the most tradition-mongering sport going, used to recognize the player who gained the most yards on the season as its rushing leader. Then they changed it to yards per game. The world, remarkably, stayed on its axis.)

Ichiro's feat is a jumping-off point for a discussion. Should it be treated the same as if he had played his whole career on one side of the Pacific, instead of spending his first nine seasons in the Pacific League? How well do us North American folk do at comprehending a player whose career was spread over two continents, or included a stint in the "other league"? Like the kids say on Facebook, "it's complicated."

It's not the same, because is isn't the same. The ballparks in Japan are smaller and its brand of baseball offers a lower level of competition, so even considering the shorter season (140 games instead of one-sixty-two) how can this be put on the same level?

By the same token, though, it is the same. Ichiro was a major-league ballplayer when he was leading his Japanese league in hitting for seven straight seasons before joining the Mariners in 2001. He was simply kept out of the American majors by circumstances beyond his control. This was only 10 years ago, but it wasn't so long ago that baseball people, quote, unquote, were largely skeptical that a Japanese position player could make it in the major leagues. There was a little xenophobia going on there. It's either that or they did believe it, but couldn't convince the highers-up that it was worth the expense to find out. The Japanese players also had little incentive to test themselves across the water and their teams -- it was probably a pride thing -- weren't anxious to let them leave. Ichiro had fortunate circumstances -- his team was hard-up for money, and didn't want him going to another team and beating him.

The point is, though, there has to be some acknowledgement that if Ichiro had been in North America earlier or from the get-go, he would be well on pace for 3,000 MLB hits.

Cultural differences. North American journalists still have some work to do when it comes to properly appreciating a player. It's still mind-boggling that people who should have known better got their hackles up when Igor Larionov, the great Russian centre, was selected for the Hockey Hall of Fame last month. It seemed pretty cut-and-dried.

Consider the following: Mike Bossy was a hands-down, no-doubt Hall of Famer in hockey, based on what he did from 1977 to '88 with the New York Islanders, who as you know, won four straight Stanley Cups. Larionov was a key cog in another hockey juggernaut, the Soviet national team, for roughly the same span. He was one of the best players on what was one of the most powerful hockey teams in the world -- just like Bossy.

Bossy had to retire young due to back problems. Larionov, once he'd managed to get out from under the thumb of Viktor Tikhonov and the old Soviet sport system, managed to come to North America and fashion a nice career as a role player, first as Pavel Bure's setup man with the Canucks and as a checking centre with the three Red Wings' Stanley Cup winners. He more or less had Mike Bossy's career -- in terms of length and impact -- and then had someone else's career. But, oh no, since the better part of it came in the old Soviet Union, it didn't count. As far as some are concerned, it was if he only began playing real hockey when he joined the Canucks in 1989.

That's absurd. It's ridiculous to believe what Ichiro did before 2001 doesn't count. It's a matter of what degree it's discounted -- and it's more like 5%, 10% than 70-75%.

(* That's assuming A.J. Burnett doesn't once again display his lack of guts and grittitude by working on three days' rest again.)


  • The great Greg Maddux hasn't received credit for a win since May 10.
  • One more reason to get on the anti-Cubs bandwagon: They called up right-hander Jeff Samardzija, the former (grits teeth) Notre Dame football star. The blogosphere is already roiled up enough about the huge Wrigley Field love-in that will ensue if the Cubbies make the playoffs. No one needs the prospect of Samardzija's former quarterback, the much-resented Brady Quinn, showing up in the stands wearing a Cubs jersey.

    Guess what? The Cleveland Browns' bye week in the NFL coincides with the first week of the baseball playoffs. You can't make that up.
  • The Hardball Times has a look at the only previous AL team that went from worst to first.
Damn, the Jays

  • ShysterBall has a note, "Yesterday lots of folks were reporting that the Jays were shopping (Roy) Halladay. Late in the day the Jays denied it. If I had to guess, they are shopping him, as any team in their position should be given the kinds of returns teams are getting for starters this year. (CC) Sabathia, (Rich) Harden, and (Erik) Bedard all brought back value, and given how well Sabathia has pitched in particular, you can bet that there are some teams out there thinking about how to get the same kind of magic on their side."

    It's kind of come to the point with the Jays that you can read something positive about a baseball team's front office and then turn it around on Godcciardi. They would rather squeeze an 83-79 season out of this bunch than attempt anything radical.
  • Baseball America has provided the latest look at the Jays bright hitting hope, Travis Snider. He's now hitting .259/.343/.453 for New Hampshire, which for a 20-year-old in the Eastern League, is serious stuff. (Thanks to Pete Toms for the tip.)
  • The same site also has some tidbits on lefty-hitting Double-A second baseman Scott Campbell (on-base machine, somewhat dodgy defence) and the first-round draft choice, first baseman David Cooper, who's been tearing the cover off the ball in the Midwest League -- and hasn't been involved in any bench-clearing brawls yet.

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