MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Six hits from 3,000, Ichiro a sure Hall of Famer

Six hits from 3,000, Ichiro a sure Hall of Famer

With Ichiro Suzuki only six hits away from 3,000, it is time to look at his Major League career on its own merits.

Forget the combined hit total between Japan and the U.S. exceeding Pete Rose's. That is a case of apples and oranges. But Ichiro is a no-doubt Hall of Famer in North America.

With three hits Sunday for the Marlins in a victory over the Cardinals, Ichiro increased his hit total to 2,994. He is on the verge of becoming just the 30th player to reach 3,000 hits in the history of the North American game.

That is an incredible total for a man who did not begin his career in American baseball until age 27. Even now, at age 42, he is having a bounce-back season for Miami, batting .347 with an OPS of .829.

Ichiro's impact on the Major League game was immediate. He won the American League MVP Award in his rookie season of 2001, as well as the AL batting crown. He also won the first of 10 straight Gold Gloves that season.

Ichiro's impact on the game was also immense. He was a large part of the reason the 2001 Seattle Mariners had an AL record-setting 116 victories. And even beyond that, Ichiro smashed a stereotype regarding Japanese players. Until his appearance, the stereotype was that perhaps an occasional Japanese pitcher could succeed in the North American game, but a Japanese position player would not stand up to the grind and the force of Major League Baseball

Ichiro did not simply change that stereotype. He erased it.

In Ichiro's peak years, he was a joy to watch, exhibiting four of the five basic playing tools on a daily basis. He put his bat on the ball, almost incessantly. Over his career, he struck out in fewer than 10 percent of his at-bats. Ichiro stole more than 30 bases in 10 of his first 11 seasons, and stole 40 in his age-37 season.

In the outfield, Ichiro was fleet of foot, with a strong, accurate arm. He was a superb all-around player. If the knock on him was that he did not hit for power, he was a leadoff hitter, who was not asked to hit for power. If you ever watched Ichiro take batting practice and turn on pitch after pitch, driving balls out of the park, you understood that he sacrificed power to get on base.

After several seasons of diminishing numbers, he is flourishing again in a part-time role with the Marlins. After getting regular playing time earlier in the season because of injuries, with Miami's impressive starting outfield once again healthy, Ichiro has had only two games this month with more than one at-bat.

Reaching 3,000 hits is clearly a matter of when not if for Ichiro, but the when could be delayed a bit by his part-time status. Still, with the Marlins in the hunt for a postseason berth, he has accepted his role.

"If he were playing every day, you know it wouldn't be long," Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. "But in our situation, you don't quite know how long that's going to take. Ich, all year long, has played within the context of the game. I think these guys want to win, and he's playing within that context."

On Sunday, Ichiro, hitting leadoff and playing center, singled twice and doubled, scoring one run and driving in another. He had a single to center, an opposite-field double to left and an infield hit.

The recent debate about the meaning of Ichiro having more hits than Rose, when Ichiro's hits in Japan are factored in, does not matter in this discussion. Rose is the all-time Major League hits leader with 4,256, period.

But that in no way diminishes Ichiro's Major League accomplishments. He was worthy of the Hall of Fame well before he neared 3,000 hits. The 3,000 hits, a magnificent accomplishment in itself, will only further reinforce Ichiro's status as one of the true greats of the game.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.