Ichiro making run at record, Hall of Fame
Mariners outfielder nearing ninth straight 200-hit season
SEATTLE -- There are bats and balls, caps and wristbands worn by Ichiro Suzuki resting comfortably at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., waiting for the owner to arrive.
And make no mistake about it, the nine-time All-Star and likely nine-time Gold Glove Award winner has one foot in the door of baseball's shrine.
That door will open a bit wider when Ichiro, who has 196 hits on the season, becomes the first player in Major League history with nine consecutive seasons with at least 200 hits, replacing Hall of Famer Willie Keeler at the top of the list. Keeler accomplished the feat from 1894 through 1901.
And so another baseball legend will fall to Ichiro, who already replaced Hall of Fame first baseman George Sisler as the single-season hit leader, breaking an 84-year-old record.
The numbers Ichiro continues to accumulate are mind-boggling.
Now 35, he led the Major Leagues with 242 hits in his rookie season and has accumulated at least 206 hits each season since, topping out with a MLB-record 262 hits in 2004, when he broke the record Sisler had held since 1920.
Ichiro had his sights on a record-breaking ninth consecutive 200-hit season when he reported to Spring Training in Peoria, Ariz., following Team Japan's successful defense of its World Baseball Classic championship. But as camp wore on, Ichiro wore down. He was diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer and went on the disabled list for the first time in his MLB career, missing the first eight games of the regular season. It put a temporary delay on his pursuit of 200 hits, but he was not to be denied.
|Below is a look at when Ichiro has reached the 200-hit mark in each of the past eight seasons.|
|2001||Aug. 29||132||@ TB||242|
|2003||Sept. 20||151||@ OAK||212|
|2005||Sept. 25||156||@ DET||206|
|2006||Sept. 16||147||@ KC||224|
|2007||Sept. 3||135||@ NYY||238|
|2008||Sept. 17||150||@ KC||213|
Along the way, his MLB peers have rolled their eyes in amazement.
Red Sox slugger David Ortiz thought about the string of 200-hit seasons for a few seconds and shook his head.
"Nine years with 200 hits? That's ridiculous," he said. "I mean, I've had some killing seasons, and not once did I get close to 200 hits. He gets to 200 hits like going 4-for-4 in a game."
No hitter in the 133-year history of the Major Leagues has accomplished what Ichiro is on the verge of doing. Not Ty Cobb. Not Joe DiMaggio. Not Ted Williams. Not Pete Rose. Not Tony Gwynn. Not anyone.
Only three other players -- Cobb, Keeler and Rose -- have had at least eight 200-hit seasons in their entire careers, and two of them needed a lot more time to do it than Ichiro.
Rose, the all-time hits leader, needed 15 seasons to get his ninth 200-hit season. Cobb was in his 20th big league season when he accumulated his ninth -- and last -- 200-hit season.
Active leaders in 200-hit seasons
If he stays healthy, there is no reason to doubt that Ichiro will join Rose at the top of the list in 2010 and eventually become the first to have 11 in 2011.
As he approaches the 200-hit plateau again, Ichiro is on pace to make a run at another mark. The most hits compiled by someone 35 or older is 227 -- a mark shared by Sam Rice (1925) and Nap Lajoie (1910). More recently, Paul Molitor collected 225 hits at the age of 39 in 1996.
"It's not a fluke that a guy like that has consistency in his game," Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said of Ichiro. "He's so strong mentally that you see the exact same approach day in and day out with him. Even if he does struggle a little bit, he seems to find a way to get either an infield hit, hit the ball the other way or pull the ball."
It has been quite a journey from the Pacific League in Japan to the Major Leagues, and as Ichiro methodically moves toward more hit records, his Hall of Fame credentials improve.
To become eligible for enshrinement, a player must play at least 10 years in the Major Leagues, be retired for five years, and make it through a screening committee composed of members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Let the debate begin.
Molitor, inducted into the Hall in 2004, was the Mariners' hitting coach when Ichiro broke Sisler's single-season hit record that same season. He was non-committal about Ichiro being a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer.
"He's going to be an interesting one," Molitor said. "There never has been a crossover player, someone coming to America after playing in another country for several years. [The Hall of Fame] is not all about hits, but the impact a player has on American baseball and that is something the baseball writers will have to decide.
"Ichiro has done things most people can't put their arms around, like having four 50-hit months [in 2004]," Molitor added. "Most players are lucky to have one 50-hit month a year. He has had an incredible run so far and opened doors to a lot of [position] players from Japan."
Ichiro is known for being driven by the number of hits he can accumulate, but he insists that becoming the all-time hits leader is not something he thinks about. Even so, counting the 1,278 hits he had with the Orix Blue Wave during his nine-year career in Japan, and the hits he has with the Mariners, he would need just under 1,000 more to surpass Rose's record of 4,256.
Don't be surprised if it happens.
Even at age 35, Ichiro runs so well that opponents must play their infielders closer to home plate than they do for speedsters who are 10 years younger.
"What impresses me the most about 'Ich' is all the infield hits he gets," Mariners teammate Ken Griffey Jr. said. "He has an arsenal of weapons that most of us don't have. He can beat out a ball he barely hits, he can hit home runs and drive balls into the gaps. It was fun watching him on TV when I was in Cincinnati. It's even more fun watching him [in person]."
Ichiro hits line drives all over the place, but even when he doesn't hit a ball solidly, he can still beat it out for a hit. He makes one of the toughest things to do in sports -- hitting a baseball -- look easy.
"Nothing in baseball is easy," Ichiro said. "I am always playing at a fine line between beating the opponent or being defeated."
So what keeps him motivated through the grueling 162-game season?
"The feeling that baseball is fun, and the greed of wanting to get better," Ichiro said.
There have been few players like Ichiro. He makes an infield chopper exciting. His second big league hit, on April 2, 2001, was a bunt single in the eighth inning, helping to set up the game-winning run.
He's been slashing and dashing for nearly nine years now, and there are no signs of him slowing down.
"If anything, he might be getting better," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said.
Ichiro has aged well. There are some specks of gray in his black hair. From the waist up, he still looks scrawny, but his legs are strong and his stomach is flat. Indeed, he remains strong enough to hit home runs and fast enough to beat out what seem to be routine grounders.
The sometimes unorthodox swing, which causes him to almost lose his balance in the batters' box, is basically the same in 2009 as it was in '01, when he arrived from Japan as more of a curiosity than a perennial All-Star.
"With the body he has, he could play the game forever," Ortiz said. "And, you know, by the time he decides to not play anymore, like 10 years from now, there is no doubt about him making it into the Hall of Fame."
Willie Keeler probably would agree.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.