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Ichiro leads an assault on baseball's records

He's poised to rack up most hits in a season. Other marks look vulnerable, too.

By Erik SpanbergCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 30, 2004



Barring unforeseen circumstances, an 84-year-old baseball record will soon fall to a player known to fans by his first name: Ichiro.

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The Seattle Mariners' leadoff hitter is on pace to break George Sisler's major-league record of 257 hits in one season. Just four hits shy as of press time, Ichiro Suzuki is pursuing his quest at a time when San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds is moving in on the game's holy grail: Hank Aaron's record 755 lifetime home runs.

These pursuits serve to underscore - once again - that with baseball, stats matter.

Even casual fans can identify achievements by the shorthand of numbers: 56 (the streak of games in which Joe DiMaggio recorded a hit), 511 (Cy Young's career pitching victories), 4,256 (Pete Rose's lifetime base hits).

By comparison, ask a basketball fan what 38,387 signifies, and chances are he'll be hard-pressed to identify it as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's NBA-best career scoring total. In football, what does 61,361 mean? It's Dan Marino's lifetime passing yardage, but few would realize that fact given the number and no other clues.

But with baseball, some feel the obsession with stats goes too far. "I don't like statistics," says Jerome Holtzman, official historian of Major League Baseball (MLB). "They don't take the measure of the man. A lot of statistics are overrated, such as batting average, where you have a single worth as much as a home run."

That said, Mr. Holtzman proceeds to ruminate on a number of familiar records and when they might be broken. Like so many others, he can't resist comparing contemporary players with stars of the past, contemplating which marks might fall soon and which may last many generations.

Smaller ballparks, stronger hitters, and fewer dominant pitchers make it more likely hitting records will be shattered rather than pitching standards, Holtzman and others agree.

If Ichiro breaks the record in the remaining four days of the regular season, it will represent an enormous feat, though few fans know much of Sisler's Hall of Fame career. The 2001 Rookie of the Year, Ichiro has logged more than 200 hits in each of his four seasons, playing the game like few others.

"Ichiro is one of the more entertaining players because he has so many different skills, from fielding to throwing to hitting," says Steve Hirdt, executive vice president at the Elias Sports Bureau, the company serving as MLB's official statistician. "He looks like he can direct the ball, sort of like a master billiards player, no matter where the pitch is thrown."

If the hits record falls, Aaron's home run total may be the next one to go. Earlier this month, Bonds became the third player in baseball history to reach 700 home runs. Barring injury or retirement, he's on pace to pass Babe Ruth (714) next season and eclipse Aaron in 2006. Other marks in peril include Aaron's RBI total (2,297), which, says stats guru Bill James, could be surpassed in future years by Boston's Manny Ramirez. On the pitching side, the current dominance of closers such as Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees makes vulnerable the records for saves in a single season (57, by Bobby Thigpen in 1990) and for a lifetime (478, Lee Smith).

The seemingly unbreakable records include Young's 511 wins, Nolan Ryan's 5,714 career strikeouts, and Hack Wilson's 191 RBI season in 1930. Rose's hits record and Rickey Henderson's 2,295 runs scored also seem safe in the short term. Then again, as Mr. James notes, baseball experts and fans alike are often limited by contemporary perspectives.

"All records of this type are much more vulnerable than fans generally believe them to be," he says. "The game changes enormously from generation to generation, and these changes are unpredictable."

Some revered records may be overvalued or hyped, say experts. For example, fans celebrated when Cal Ripken Jr. passed Lou Gehrig's streak of 2,130 consecutive games played in 1995. He went on to reach 2,632 before taking a day off.

Some, including the Elias Sports Bureau executive, say the feat isn't comparable to Bonds's pursuit of the home run record or Rose's hit total.

"That is a different type of record because it depends more on having a manager who is willing to let you play every game," Mr. Hirdt says, noting most big-league ballplayers take an occasional day off to replenish their bodies during the 162-game grind. "If I were picking the 10 most impressive records in baseball, that wouldn't be one of them."

He acknowledges the durability Ripken's streak represents. Few players can avoid injury for the better part of two decades, as Ripken did.

While Ryan's strikeouts record seems secure, his seven no-hitters (no other pitcher in history has recorded more than four) may not loom as large. "It's still just seven sprinkled over a career," Hirdt says. "I could see a dominant pitcher coming along and doing it."

For Holtzman, the long-sacred .400 season batting average barrier is one he expects to see reached. Ted Williams was the last man to do it, batting .406 in 1941. Even the highest season average during the modern era, .424 by Rogers Hornsby in 1924, could fall. "Ichiro could break it [in the next few years]," he says. "He's only a few hits shy now."

Still, it is Bonds who comes to mind when it comes to iron-clad record-setting. Asked to name the one record least likely to fall, Holtzman peers into the future and sees the San Francisco slugger, who has been dogged by suspicion of using performance-enhancing drugs, leaving the game with an all-time best of 800 or so home runs.

"That's going to be pretty tough," he says. "I never heard of anybody who was feared as much as Barry Bonds. He may be the best hitter of all time."

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