By Manny Randhawa
DENVER -- For the 30th time in the 141-year history of Major League Baseball, a player has collected 3,000 hits. But the newest member of the exclusive club is unique in a way that transcends the game.
On April 2, 2001, Ichiro Suzuki made his Major League debut at the age of 27 years, 162 days after playing nine seasons in the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball organization. On Sunday at Coors Field, in his 2,452nd career game -- at the age of 42 years, 290 days -- Ichiro became the first player who began his career in a foreign league to reach the 3,000-hit milestone.
Along the way, Ichiro won the 2001 American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in his first MLB season, was selected as an All-Star ten consecutive years to begin his career, and simultaneously won 10 straight Gold Glove awards. In 2004, he hit .372 and set the all-time single-season Major League hits record, with 262.
Where does Ichiro rank among his new peers in the 3,000 hit club?
"I've always felt that with things like that, you think about it when you don't have things you're doing," Ichiro told Sports on Earth through an interpreter on Saturday. "So I think when I'm old and I look back and I think about what has happened, then maybe I can say this or that about where I think I am or whatnot."
With Ichiro, there will always be the "what if?" question. What if he had begun his Major League career at the average age of the other 29 members of the club -- 20 years, 215 days? Could he have surpassed Pete Rose's career mark of 4,256 Major League hits?
Ichiro doesn't like to play the "what if?" game. But whatever you make of his 1,278 hits in Japan from 1992-2000, that chapter of his career undoubtedly plays a role in determining his place in baseball history.
Among the 30 players to have amassed 3,000 or more hits, Ichiro's average WAR per season from his Major League debut through Sunday is 3.84, per Fangraphs. That ranks him 26th out of the 30 club members, behind Rafael Palmeiro (4.0 from his MLB debut through 3,000-hit season) and just ahead of Robin Yount (3.83). Ranked 28th through 30th are Craig Biggio (3.7), Dave Winfield (3.5) and Lou Brock (2.7).
The average 3,000 hit club member had 1,100 hits through his first six full MLB seasons (the average number of seasons each club member played before age 27). And from his age-27 season through his age-41 season, only one player in history had more hits than Ichiro's 2,935: Pete Rose, who had 2,970. Ty Cobb had 2,589.
Speaking of Cobb, he had the highest average WAR in the club through his 3,000-hit season: 9.0. He's followed by Honus Wagner (8.6), Willie Mays (8.5), Tris Speaker (8.1) and Stan Musial (7.9).
The median WAR on the list is Cal Ripken's 5.3. Other notables include the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, Rickey Henderson (5.4 average WAR through 3,000-hit season), all-time career hits leader Rose (4.9), and lifetime .338 hitter and eight-time batting champion Tony Gwynn (4.5).
In terms of batting average through the 3,000-hit season, Ichiro currently ranks 13th with a .314 lifetime clip. He's behind Roberto Clemente (.317) and ahead of Hank Aaron and Derek Jeter, each of whom hit .313 for his career through the season in which he reached the milestone.
Ichiro has never been known to walk much, and ranks 26th in on-base percentage in the 3,000 hit club, with a .357 mark. He's ahead of only Winfield (.354 OBP through 3,000-hit season), Ripken (.343), Brock (.343) and Yount (.340).
There are 30 members of the 3,000 hit club, but far fewer in an impressive subgroup to which Ichiro now belongs. Until Sunday, just three players in Major League history with 3,000 career hits also stole 500 or more bases and hit at least .300 for their career -- Cobb, Eddie Collins and Paul Molitor. Ichiro became the fourth, with 3,000 hits, 507 stolen bases and a career .314 batting average.
An even smaller subgroup exists: Players who recorded 3,000 or more hits within a 16-year window. Just two on that one: Rose and now Ichiro.
But perhaps the greatest legacy Ichiro leaves with this feat -- and indeed his entire career -- is the strengthened connection between Japanese and American baseball. He was the first position player from Japan to ever play Major League Baseball, and fittingly he is the greatest.
"When I first came over here, I felt like I needed to put up the numbers that I put up in Japan in order to prove the level of the baseball that there is in Japan," Ichiro said. "I felt like if I was able to do that, it would really show what kind of level we have in Japan. For me, getting to this point, this number that we're talking about, I think it was important that it shows the quality of baseball we do have in Japan."
In the press conference following Sunday's game, when his 93rd career triple put him into one of the most elite clubs in baseball history, Ichiro echoed that sentiment.
"I've been able to come [to the Major Leagues] and get some hits," he said. "To get to this 3,000th hit, we're not there yet.
"There's still more that we need to do as Japanese players. Hopefully this 3,000th hit will bring that bridge closer."
Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com and a contributor to Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @MannyRsports.