By Ross Newhan
Ichiro Suzuki reported to work with the New York Yankees Wednesday needing one more hit for 4,000 in his professional career, and it doesn't matter that he won't be listed with Pete Rose and Ty Cobb as the only major league players to eclipse that total because 1,278 of those hits came with the Orix Blue Wave.
Nor does it matter if you remain skeptical about Japanese baseball despite the wave of quality imports.
Suzuki has been all that he was touted to be, a hit machine headed to the Hall of Fame--the one in Cooperstown, U.S.A.--and 4,000 represent an opportunity to recall a few accomplishments.
Like a .320 career average, two American League batting titles, 10 straight seasons of 200 or more hits, 10 straight All-Star appearances, a remarkable 262 hits with Seattle in 2004 to break George Sisler's 84 year old major league record (257) for the most in a single season and a U.S. total of 2,721 during 13 seasons with the Mariners and Yankees--a period in which he also displayed one of the strongest and most accurate throwing arms anywhere.
Suzuki is now a partime player at 39, but he still has rolled out 293 hits in the 280 games of the last two plus seasons, and he should reach 3,000, a Cooperstown milepost, if he realizes a goal of playing two more years.
While posting fees for Asian players have skyrocketed, the Mariners paid a modest $13.12 million to Orix for the right to negotiate with Suzuki, who signed for three years at $14.088 million-- that, too, comparatively modest when weighed against the currently inflated market.
No one knew the Orix outfielder and knows Suzuki better than Jim Marshall, who played parts of seven seasons in the majors, managed the Oakland A's and Chicago Cubs, and now scouts for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Marshall also played for and managed the Blue Wave before serving as their international scout, a period in which he often dined twice a week with Suzuki.
"At that time," Marshall said from his Arizona home, "I would say that the caliber of play in Japan was the equivalent of 4A--better than triple A here but lacking the depth of our big leagues.
"However, I knew that when Ichiro finally got his opportunity to play here he would be a star. What I couldn't have predicted was that he would be a superstar. He hit every caliber of pitcher in Japan, and he has done the same in the big leagues."
It is also worth noting when analyzing Suzuki's hit total that those 1,278 hits during seven full seasons with Orix came over schedules of 130, 135 games, compared to the 162 here. Clearly, he would be far beyond the 4,000 total had he played a career of 162 games per year.
As it is, in addition to Rose, the alltime leader at 4,256, and Cobb, the only two other players credited with more than 4,000 hits as professionals are Stan Musial and Hank Aaron, whose totals were achieved at the major and minor league levels. If Japan was 4A and better than triple A during his career with the Blue Wave, Suzuki may ultimately fit somewhere on the hit ladder beneath Rose and Cobb and above Musial and Aaron.
It is all speculation when factoring in those years in Japan, but Suzuki has definitely measured up as a Hall of Fame caliber player in the big leagues, and 4,000, by any measure, is certainly not bad for a guy who began his professional career as a pitcher.