It may seem hard to believe, but 2001 was a really long time ago. In baseball years, that is. Only five players who were playing that season are still active today. Actually, it’s four now, with Ichiro Suzuki’s “retirement.” The others are Adrian Beltre, who doesn’t age, C.C. Sabathia, who has reinvented himself as Tom Glavine in his late 30s, Bartolo Colon, whose age almost matches his waistline, and Albert Pujols, who collected his 3,000th hit Friday night. Ichiro and Pujols (and Sabathia) were rookies in 2001, dominating from the minute they arrived on the scene.
Looking back, it’s fun to note that Ichiro and Pujols essentially replaced Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mark McGwire as their franchises’ icons in Seattle and St. Louis. Both players will be giving speeches in Cooperstown five years after they retire, even though neither has played at a Hall of Fame level since Obama’s first term. We’ve spent much time in recent years bemoaning their lack of production and wondering how much longer their respective careers will last, but on a day when Ichiro announced his transition into a Mariners’ front office role and Pujols collected his 3,000th hit — in Seattle, of all places — it seems appropriate to appreciate what those two have meant to the game.
The Beast from the Far East
Shohei Otani. Hideki Matsui. Shin-Soo Choo. Jung-ho Kang. These guys, and many more, have Ichiro to thank for their careers. Though several pitchers had come before him, Ichiro was the first position player from Japan to play in the major leagues, and when he first signed with he Mariners, he was far from a sure thing. Seattle’s general manager at the time, Pat Gillick, was met with a lot of criticism for taking a chance on him for $55 million, which sounded like a lot more money in 2001 than it does today.
Ichiro had a unique style of play, unseen before (or since) in the major leagues, and at 5’9” and 162 pounds, he was viewed by many as too frail to succeed against major league pitching or endure the 162-game season (a Japanese season is 144 games). He was a big star in Japan — so big that, according to his agent, you could mail something to him by simply writing ‘ICHIRO’ on the envelope and it would get to him — and if he couldn’t translate his game to the States, Major League GMs would be reluctant to take chances on other Asian position players.
He translated. Boy, did he translate. In his first year, he led the majors in at-bats, hits, steals, and batting average, sweeping the Rookie of the Year voting, and although he didn’t really deserve the MVP award he won that year — teammate Bret Boone, Cleveland’s Roberto Alomar, and Oakland’s Jason Giambi were better candidates — he was one of the main reasons the Mariners won a record 116 games. [It’s not that his MVP was undeserved; it was simply awarded to him the wrong year: He should have won it over Vladimir Guerrero in 2004.] He played at a Hall of Fame level for ten years, setting records for most hits in a season (262 in 2004), most hits in a rookie season (242), most consecutive seasons leading the league in hits (5), and he’s the only player to have at least 200 hits in ten consecutive seasons. If you haven’t gotten the idea yet, the man got a lot of hits.
Then he got old and declined, as we all do, although he managed to hang around as a useful fourth and fifth outfielder long enough to amass 3,089 hits in the MLB and a world record 4,367 total hits including his nine years in Japan.
St. Louis Savior
Another rookie took the league by storm in 2001: 21-year-old Albert Pujols mashed his way into the Cardinals lineup that spring and never looked back. For those same ten seasons that Ichiro dominated the American League hit charts, Pujols was king of the National League, making nine All-Star teams, winning three MVP awards and deserving two more, and just generally being, like, the best player in the world (once Barry Bonds’ and Alex Rodriguez’ steroids started causing hip problems).
He hasn’t been that guy in a while, but on a day like today, when he becomes the fourth player in history with 600 home runs and 3,000 hits — Rodriguez, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays are the others — and just the second Dominican with 3,000 hits (Adrian Beltre), it’s worth remembering just how good he was.
Ichiro and Pujols were Rookies of the Year. They were MVPs, silver sluggers, gold glovers, batting champions, and ten-time all-stars. Today they both reached significant milestones, and today we recognize two of the best that ever played. We’re lucky we got to see them.