By Marc Normandin
It's been tough to notice, given the emphasis on the All-Star game, Alex Rodriguez, the trade deadline, Alex Rodriguez, Biogenesis, and oh yeah, Alex Rodriguez, but Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki is pretty close to making history for something positive. The Japanese-born veteran, entering play on Wednesday, sits just 15 hits shy of 4,000 for his career.
Well, okay, sort of: his career hit number does rely a bit on who you ask, and how forgiving you are for fudging the math a bit.
Ichiro played professionally in Japan before coming to the United States and Major League Baseball. In his nine seasons there, ages 18 through 26, he tallied 1,278 base hits with a .355 batting average and, as hard as it might be to believe given what we know of him these days, more homers (204) than stolen bases (199). He's now 13 seasons into his stateside career after originally bursting on the scene in 2001 to win MVP and Rookie of the Year honors with the 116-win Seattle Mariners, and has amassed another 2,707 base knocks under his belt, for a grand total of 3,985. Assuming you're willing to combine the two like that, of course.
And hey, why shouldn't we? Maybe the Japan Pacific League isn't quite at MLB's level in terms of talent, but it's the closest thing the world has, and is a superior league to the minor leagues of America. It's not Ichiro's fault that he couldn't come to the majors immediately. The Japanese have a complicated baseball posting system that holds their native talent within their leagues until enough time has passed that their players can venture outside the country (once their team collects a fee from the MLB club who signs them, anyway). Imagine what Ichiro's career MLB numbers would look like if he had been able to sign as an international free agent at the age of 16 or 17, like so many Dominican-born players, and came to the majors as a teenager like rare talents before him have managed to do?* There wouldn't be any asterisk necessary for his hit count -- he would have already blown by the 3,000 mark, and would also likely be the active hit leader instead of teammate Derek Jeter, who sits just over 3,300 and outside the top-10 all-time.
*Or, to preserve the validity of this line of reasoning for the future, if Ichiro was part of an international draft class.
So, with that in mind, let's just say Ichiro is approaching 4,000 career hits during his time in professional major leagues. It's an accomplishment only two men before have him managed, and in a lot of ways, history will likely smile upon Ichiro far more kindly than it does that pair, so there's reason to pimp and celebrate this upcoming historic moment.
Pete Rose, as you likely know, is the all-time hit leader in Major League Baseball with 4,256. As you also know, however, Rose famously bet on MLB games, and was banned from the sport, Cooperstown and basically any acknowledgment of his existence. He has his supporters to overturn all that, but they aren't at the high levels in baseball since he broke what is the "Cardinal Rule of the Game."
The other Major League player in the 4,000 hit club is Ty Cobb, with 4,189. Yeah, Cobb played in an era where there were a lot of flat-out mean individuals -- Jackie Robinson didn't break the color barrier until nearly 20 years after Cobb was finished his playing career -- but he's representative of the era in a way that makes present-day analysis and appreciation uncomfortable. From the New Georgia Encylopedia:
Cobb mastered baseball, but he never mastered his temper. During his career he was involved in numerous fights, both on and off the field, and several profanity-laced shouting matches. A racist, Cobb once slapped a black elevator operator for being "uppity." When a black night watchman intervened, Cobb pulled out a knife and stabbed him. (The matter was later settled out of court.)
There was also the time Cobb went into the stands to beat up a spectator for yelling at him, and the times he basically made stuff up to biographer Al Stump about all the people he violently (and proudly!) attacked or killed. Nice guy, that Ty Cobb.
Given all that, I think we can forgive Ichiro a little thing like playing baseball in another country's professional major league for most of a decade. The worst thing he's ever done is make fun of Cleveland, but let he who hasn't teased Cleveland cast the first stone.
Ichiro is now 39, and not quite the hitter he used to be, so expecting him to end up as the all-time hit leader might be asking a bit much -- he might have to limp past the goal line in the same way Rose did back in the 80s in order to pull that off. Of course, we've also learned not to doubt Ichiro over the years, despite the weird and unique player that he is. Here he is now, 39 years old, with 101 hits in 100 games, and while it's not exactly the rousing production we're used to from his peak years, he's not embarrassing himself near what could be the end of his career, either. If he stays healthy, he should finish well past 4,000 career hits combined between his time in Japan and America, and not that far off from 3,000 in MLB alone.
Will he be able to reach that latter mark before he hangs up his cleats? That's a tough one to predict, but if he finishes this year with 150 hits, he'll need just 244 more to hit 3,000 on the nose. He's under contract with the Yankees for his age-40 season, and could very well latch on somewhere if for no other reason than someone wants to have him around when the first-ever Japanese-born player in the MLB is approaching the 3,000 hit mark.
The history books might not recognize Ichiro's 4,000 career hits, but there are plenty of reasons to think they should. Maybe he'll have to settle for "just" 3,000 or more MLB hits on the official record, but we won't have to worry about that for quite some time yet. In the meantime, just appreciate the fact that you're about to see someone cross a threshold that barely anyone in the history of a game that spans three centuries has managed to.
Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.