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SI Now: Ichiro Hall of Famer even without Japan numbers
1:45 | MLB
SI Now: Ichiro Hall of Famer even without Japan numbers
Friday July 22nd, 2016

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Update: This story was originally published on July 22. Ichiro Suzuki recorded his 3,000th hit on Aug. 7.

When then-Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki collected his 4,000th hit in professional baseball on Aug. 21, 2013—his 2,722nd in the major leagues, to go with the 1,278 he tallied in Nippon Professional Baseball—the celebration of his unique two-continent career that took place felt as though it were in lieu of the hoopla that would normally surround a player's 3,000th hit in MLB. Two months shy of his 40th birthday and with his offensive production having dipped to replacement level, Suzuki did not appear likely to reach another major milestone. That night, when asked about the possibility of sticking around for 3,000, he conceded, "I can't have that as a goal."

Lo and behold, Ichiro did stick around. Now, in the midst of an improbable resurgence with the Marlins at age 42, Ichiro enters a weekend series against the Mets in Miami just four hits away from becoming the 30th player in major league history to reach that magical milestone.

When he gets there, Ichiro will join Roberto Clemente (Puerto Rico), Rod Carew (Panama) and Rafael Palmeiro (Cuba) as the only members of the 3,000 Hit Club who were born outside the continental United States. What will be truly remarkable about Ichiro getting there, however, is that he'll be the first member who began his professional career in a foreign league. He spent nine seasons (1992 to 2000) with the Orix Blue Wave in the Japan Pacific League, debuting as an 18-year-old and playing for a manager whose distaste for Ichiro's unorthodox swing with its high leg kick pushed him back to the Japanese minor leagues. When Orix changed managers for the 1994 season, the 20-year-old Ichiro became a lineup staple, winning that year's batting title with a .385 mark and setting a league record for hits (210) in a 130-game season. That kicked off a dominant stretch in which he won the first of seven straight batting titles and Gold Gloves and the first of three consecutive MVP awards. Overall, Ichiro hit .353/.421/.522 in his native country.

In 2000, the rebuilding Blue Wave allowed him to become the first Japanese position player to go through the posting system, which allowed major league teams to bid for the right to negotiate with a foreign player. Several Japanese pitchers had come to the U.S. prior to Ichiro, with ex-San Francisco Giants pitcher Masanori Murakami (1964 to '65) the first and onetime Dodgers sensation Hideo Nomo (1995 to 2008) the best, but concerns about the size and skill level of the league's position players left that territory uncharted. The Mariners won Ichiro's rights by bidding $13.125 million, then signed him to a three-year contract worth $14.088 million.

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The wiry 27-year-old rightfielder quickly became a stateside sensation. In 2001 he led the majors with 242 hits and 56 steals, won the American League batting title with a .350 average (to go with a .381 on-base percentage and a .457 slugging percentage) and pocketed both the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, all while helping the Mariners to an AL-record 116 wins. He also made the All-Star team and won a Gold Glove, honors he would replicate in each of the next nine years. In fact, from 2001 to '10, Ichiro batted at least .300 and collected over 200 hits in every season; in 2004 he broke George Sisler's 84-year-old record by racking up 257 hits. In a power-saturated era full of sluggers, Ichiro’s slashing, slap-hitting style made for a wonderfully entertaining throwback.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

For his first decade in the majors, Ichiro totaled 2,244 hits and batted .331/.376/.430 for a 117 OPS+. But even though he added another 362 hits over the next two seasons, his play declined significantly, as he hit .277/.308/.361 for a 90 OPS+. On July 23, 2012, the rebuilding Mariners honored the quiet trade request of their 38-year-old, pending free agent by dealing him to the contending Yankees for two prospects. The once-unthinkable move seemed all the more surreal because it came at the start of New York's three-game series in Seattle; Ichiro simply moved from the home clubhouse to the visiting one. Before his first at-bat, Mariners fans gave him a lengthy standing ovation, after which he took a bow—then hit a single. In fact, Ichiro collected hits in each game of that series, starting a mini-rebound (.322/.340/.454 in 67 games) that led the Yankees re-signing him to a two-year, $13 million deal at season's end.

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Playing nearly every day both in the Bronx (2013 and '14) and Miami ('15)—where he had signed for $2 million plus incentives—Ichiro’s performance at the plate continued to erode, even though he maintained his meticulous workout regimen and remained an adept defender. At age 41 in 2015, Ichiro led the 91-loss Marlins in games played (153) but collected just 91 hits, batting an abysmal .229/.282/.279 with one home run and 11 steals. He finished the year with 2,935 hits, but his -1.2 WAR recalled the unsightly slogs to 3,000 of Craig Biggio (-1.7 WAR in 2006 and '07) and Lou Brock (-0.7 WAR from 1977 to '79).

Despite that decline, Ichiro will get to 3,000 quicker than most. He will be the 23rd player to reach the milestone since the end of World War II, and, with 10,305 plate appearances entering Friday, will be the fourth-fastest in that category. Here is the current top 10:

player date reached plate appearances
Tony Gwynn 8/6/1999 9,785
Stan Musial 5/13/1958 10,170
Roberto Clemente 9/30/1972 10,212
Rod Carew 8/4/1985 10,340
Hank Aaron 5/17/1970 10,675
Wade Boggs 8/7/1999 10,706
Pete Rose 5/5/1978 10,847
Derek Jeter 7/9/2011 10,862
Paul Molitor 9/16/1996 10,961

Ichiro is also on track to be the sixth-fastest to 3,000 by at-bats (9,540 entering play Friday, 26 fewer than it took Hank Aaron). As for games played, he is currently at 2,430, the same amount it took Wade Boggs, who is seventh among the post-World War II group; Roberto Clemente needed 2,432 games and Aaron got there in 2,460, so it is unlikely Ichio will be any worse that ninth-fastest by that measure.

How many more games will he play? Just days after the 2015 season ended, Ichiro signed a one-year, $2 million contract with Miami that included a club option for 2017. The assumption was that he was just trying to make sure he reached 3,000 and would have a more age-appropriate part-time role. But while that has largely been the case—he's started just 33 of the team's first 95 games—he has actually been extremely productive, batting .343/.419/.399 for a 125 OPS+ in 204 plate appearances; already, he's at 1.6 WAR. In his 17 starts since the beginning of June, Ichiro has 29 hits—a blistering 276-hit pace for a 162-game season. His performance has helped the surprising the Marlins (now 52–43 and in the second NL wild-card spot) contend for their first playoff berth since 2003 and their first season above .500 since '09.

Even had he not stuck around to reach 3,000 hits, Ichiro's body of work in MLB has been enough to make him a likely Hall of Famer. Reaching the milestone removes that qualifier. You can look for him on the dais in Cooperstown as soon as the summer of 2022—if he ever stops playing.

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