Ichiro embraces magnitude of 4,000 hits
Yankees star and baseball historian stands 67 shy of immortal threshold
NEW YORK -- Ichiro Suzuki is about to join the pantheon of the baseball gods on a statistical plateau only two other players have passed: 4,000 hits.
Including his infield single in the Yankees' 6-4 victory over the Indians on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, Ichiro needs only 67 to match that lofty level.
Considering his legendary durability, it will happen sometime during the months ahead, certainly before the end of the season. True, Ichiro gets there by combining the hits he accumulated playing for Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan. But it's a major feat nonetheless.
"Today I'm not thinking about that," the Yankees outfielder told MLB.com the other day through his latest interpreter, Allen Turner. "I've come to this point by doing it this way: day to day, every day. If I could get  hits in three or four days, I'd think about it. But it's still a little bit too far out to be thinking about that."
No matter what he says, though, he is thinking about that. Just knowing the exact number of hits he currently needs is proof enough. As a historian of baseball who has visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame on his own five times, he is well aware he'll join Pete Rose at 4,256 and Ty Cobb at 4,191.
For Ichiro 1,278 of those hits came in Japan while the other 2,655 have been spanked around big league fields since he joined the Mariners in 2001 through the posting system as the most heralded Japanese position player at the time to ascend to MLB.
He spent 11 1/2 years with the Mariners, setting all kinds of records for base hits -- 262 in 2004 to break George Sisler's single-season record, 10 seasons in a row with 200 or more hits.
Even last year, when he wore out his welcome with the Mariners and asked to be traded -- and was so, to the Yankees on July 23 -- Ichiro had a total of 178 for both clubs.
At 39, he has only 49 hits in 53 games right now for the Yankees, calling the question of whether he has enough left to compile 3,000 hits in the Major Leagues. Given his current pace, he'll have at least 100 more this season, leaving him about 250 short.
Re-signed as a free agent by the Yankees this past Dec. 19 to a two-year deal worth $13 million, he'll have at least one more year in pinstripes to move closer to that coveted mark. But his days of smacking out 200 or more hits in a season seem long behind him.
Still, even without 3,000 big league hits, he should already be first ballot Hall of Fame material. He's accomplished so much for baseball on both sides of the globe, as his 3,933 total hits attest.
"I appreciate that judgment and am grateful people think of me in that way," Ichiro said. "But for me, today somebody might say I'm like this, but tomorrow their opinion might change. So it's tough for me to listen to what I may have accomplished or have done. What I'm firm about and what is unshakeable is my own confidence and what I need to do as a player."
To be certain, Ichiro is an enigma. After all these years, he speaks English well but continues to conduct interviews through a Japanese-speaking translator, even though he quickly responds to questions. Unlike Seattle, where he was always the center of attention, he's content to be a part of the matrix in the Yankees scene. He's one of those key players mentioned recently by general manager Brian Cashman as "professionals who have had a lot of success in other environments, and they've taken on a role to not be the guy here."
"I can give you a list of guys who came here as superstars in other environments, and they were reduced to smithereens in New York," Cashman said.
Ichiro is not one of them. In Seattle, he insisted on playing every day, in right field, while leading off. In New York, he's played more than anticipated. He's content to spot start in either of the corner outfield positions, and bat anywhere manager Joe Girardi deems appropriate in the lineup. On Wednesday, he was a late-inning replacement for Lyle Overbay in right field. He's thriving for the Yankees and enjoys the history and tradition, even though he was always a small-market player in Asia and the U.S.
Hideki Matsui came from the powerhouse Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants in NPB's Central League and dominated Japanese baseball before signing with the Yankees as a free agent after the 2002 season. In New York, he rose to his own stature and was named MVP of the Yanks' six-game victory over the Phillies in the 2009 World Series.
Ichiro played in Japan's outlying Pacific League for the Orix BlueWave and went to the Mariners for a then record posting price of $13 million, largely because the Seattle club had just been purchased by a group led by the owner of Nintendo, a huge Japanese video-game corporation.
Yet, it's Ichiro, not Matsui, who eventually should have a plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y. From the beginning, Ichiro was drawn to the Hall of Fame as a rookie. He was shown Cobb's uniform and has made four trips there since, including one this past offseason.
As an active player, he is treated to visits inside the museum's refrigerated basement archives, where many of the Hall's most cherished artifacts are kept. The mystique of the Hall keeps drawing him back, he said.
"When you go and see all the equipment those guys used back then, you know we're blessed with the stuff we have today," Ichiro said. "You only begin to understand how different the game might have been. I'm shocked and amazed at that alone. For example, I was able to see the equipment used by George Sisler. It's impossible to believe that he put up those numbers with that equipment.
"Because of that record and those numbers, I was able to go and feel that connection with him. Those are the reasons I constantly go back."
Sisler set the record with 257 hits in 1920 for the St. Louis Browns. Cobb's career ended in 1928. Rose passed Cobb on the all-time hits list in 1985. It has been multiple generations since all this happened.
And now, with 4,000 hits beckoning, Ichiro is on the verge of joining the pantheon of the baseball gods.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.