Ichiro has achieved a milestone that's always been the ultimate arbiter of hitting prowess for a major-leaguer. And, being Ichiro, he did it in a fashion no one else ever has.
So here he is at 3,000 hits, a slightly grayer version of his Seattle self, still slashing his way into history.
Ichiro was a marvel of incongruous genius from his very first day in spring training with the Mariners in 2001, and all these years later, you still can’t quite figure out how he did it.
Yet he has done it, achieving a milestone that has always been the ultimate arbiter of hitting prowess for a major-leaguer. And, being Ichiro, he did it in a fashion no one else ever has. First of all, he started in the major leagues at age 27, far too late to achieve this particular career milestone. Or so it seemed.
Mike Trout will be nearly halfway to 3,000 by the time he’s 27. By giving himself such a handicap, Ichiro not only had to pile up hits at an astonishing rate early in his career, but sustain his career at an age when most players are well into their retirement.
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Done, and done. For 10 straight years in Seattle, Ichiro amassed at least 200 hits, including a major-league record 262 in 2004. And now, at age 42, he’s back in the rarified air above .300, where it once seemed he’d never leave and lately looked like he’d never return.
Ichiro did it with a hitting style that was not only unique, but also seemed counter-productive. Until you realized (which didn’t take long, even for the skeptics) that every movement of Ichiro’s on the playing field was premeditated and painstakingly practiced until every last nuance was second nature.
Yes, Ichiro had some notions that rubbed people wrong. His reluctance to dive for balls or crash into walls infuriated some teammates, but Ichiro felt his presence in the lineup was more important than an occasional web gem. And he landed on the disabled list just once in his first 12 seasons, averaging 160 games a year in those peak seasons, when his bat at the top of the order was often the best thing the Mariners had going.
Now, having moved from Seattle to New York to Miami, Ichiro has revived his career after several flagging seasons, hitting well over .317 this year while seemingly invigorated by this latest assault on history.
Combining his hits in Japan with those in the majors to put Ichiro past Pete Rose’s career mark is an interesting asterisk, to be interpreted however one likes. But reaching 3,000 hits in MLB is unambiguous, and it cements a spot among the immortals that was already reserved.
This has been a summer for celebrating ex-Mariner legends, and it’s only fitting that Ichiro reaches 3,000 just two weeks after Ken Griffey Jr. entered the Hall of Fame. For a time, in fact, I thought Ichiro was going to do it on the very day Griffey was inducted in Cooperstown.
But you can only do so much, even someone with Ichiro’s gifts, when you’re starting just once or twice a week, and most of your opportunities come as a pinch-hitter. Such is the lot for a 42-year-old playing in a league without a DH on a team with three standout outfielders.
If there was ever any doubt – and there shouldn’t have been for at least a decade – 3,000 hits puts the final stamp on Ichiro’s Hall of Fame case. With the single-season hit record, all those 200-hit and Gold-Glove seasons, and now a standard achieved by just 30 players in history, he’ll go in, rightfully on the first ballot.
And Ichiro won’t even have to call upon his seven batting titles in Japan, impressive as they are, to fortify his case. If he had never played a game in Japan, if he had emerged from the minor leagues in 2001 on the same path as any other prospect, Ichiro would be a Hall of Famer purely on his time in the MLB.
It was Griffey, remember, who was Ichiro’s idol and inspired him to come to the majors. Ichiro talked about that, and how much he treasured the two seasons they played together for the Mariners in 2009-10, when I interviewed him last month in Miami.
“Obviously, he’s a hero of mine,’’ Ichiro said through interpreter Allen Turner. “I wanted to be in the big leagues and one of the reasons was he was here. I’m sure a lot of kids felt the same way. I was able to practice with him for two weeks in ’99, and then he went to Cincinnati and I didn’t think I’d be able to wear the same uniform as his and be on the same field, so those two years were very special, that I was able to spend that time with him.”
Griffey, of course, was The Natural, while Ichiro, slapping at the ball while seemingly on the move toward first base as he was doing so, appeared anything but natural. But both were singular in their talents. Both did things no one else in the game could do, though what they did was very different.
Griffey was one who respected greatness and was drawn to it, and he was drawn to Ichiro. On the last game of the 2009 season, an unexpectedly good one for the Mariners, Seattle teammates carried both of them around the field on their shoulders, as Griffey and Ichiro high-fived one another from on high.
Now Ichiro is elevated once again, having reached 3,000 hits with a triple off the right-field wall against the Rockies. I can’t say I saw this coming in the spring of 2001, when Lou Piniella was fretting about his new outfielder who couldn’t pull the ball. Or even in 2015, when Ichiro hit one of the weakest .229s in all of baseball (just 12 extra-base-hits in 398 at-bats) and you had to wonder if he’d even find a job this year.
But I also learned long ago never to accept the conventional wisdom when it came to Ichiro. He is unique, in his gifts and in his execution of them. Underestimate that at your own peril.
|Ichiro became the fourth MLB player born outside the United States to reach 3,000 career hits.|
|Ichiro Suzuki, Japan||3,000|
|Robert Clemente, Puerto Rico||3,000|
|Rafael Palmeiro, Cuba||3,020|
|Rod Carew, Panama||3,053|