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Originally published Saturday, August 29, 2009 at 2:53 PM

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Larry Stone

Even without his numbers from Japan, Ichiro will be in the Hall of Fame

The Mariners outfielder is 11 hits shy of reaching the 2,000 mark

Seattle Times baseball reporter

The question with Ichiro is no longer whether he's going to make the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

The question is how many milestones he can reach before he gets there, and how high he can push his hit total.

Once he gets over this pesky calf injury that has slowed him down the past week, Ichiro will soon rack up two more significant accomplishments: 200 hits for the ninth consecutive season (he needed 16 before being sidelined on Monday) and 2,000 hits for his career (he was 11 shy).

Factor in all his other gaudy numbers and records — the season hits record, the most valuable player and rookie of the year awards in 2001, the nine All-Star appearances, the eight (and likely to be nine) Gold Gloves, et al — and Ichiro is, as ESPN's Jayson Stark said in an e-mail, "a don't-even-blink Hall of Famer, even without Japan."

Ah, Japan. In nine years with the Orix Blue Wave of the Pacific League, Ichiro won seven straight batting titles and three MVP awards before moving to the Mariners in 2001 and helping power the team that won 116 games.

The Hall of Fame question with Ichiro used to be how much voters would be able to factor in those Japanese accomplishments when judging his Cooperstown credentials.

But in taking periodic polls of my colleagues in the Baseball Writers' Association of America, I'm here to say definitively: That issue is moot. Ichiro is poised to make the Hall of Fame entirely on the merits of what he has accomplished in his eight-plus years, and counting, with the Mariners.

In my latest informal survey of BBWAA members who have the requisite 10 years to be eligible for Hall of Fame voting, the vast majority said they now considered Ichiro to be a Hall of Famer exclusive of his Japanese accomplishments.

Technically, he needs one more season to meet the requirement of playing 10 years in the majors, but that's just a formality. Here's a sampling of the comments:

Nick Cafardo, Boston Globe: "I would vote for him on just Mariner merits. I believe a player should be judged by the impact of his career. He'd be in that Koufax, Pedro, Puckett category for me."

Kevin Kernan, New York Post: "Having covered a hit-man like Tony Gwynn on a daily basis and doing the same now with Derek Jeter, I know an upper echelon Hall of Fame player when I see one and Ichiro is, in my book, a Hall of Famer from his major-league accomplishments."

Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: "In my opinion, Ichiro has been one of the dominant players in the major leagues for a decade or so, which is all he has been able to play. That's probably going to be good enough to get my vote, especially considering he has plenty of gas left in his tank, apparently.

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"P.S. — It won't hurt that he appears to be a 'clean' player during the steroid era."

Richard Justice, Houston Chronicle: "If he has a 10th 200-hit season, he's in as far as I'm concerned. Beyond the numbers is that thing about his walking like a duck and quacking like a duck. Ichiro is a Hall of Famer. Best hitter of his generation, best defensive outfielder of his generation."

Bill Plunkett, Orange County Register: "Without hesitation, yes, Ichiro gets my HOF vote. Japan years only a tiny, tiny factor in that."

Jayson Stark, ESPN: "When I was putting together my Mike and Mike trivia question for this week, I did a question based on how many times Pete Rose got 200 hits in a season. Pete, of course, set the record with 10. But it took him 17 seasons to get that 10th 200-hit season. Ichiro is about to have his ninth 200-hit season. And it took him NINE years to get there. My point is, we've never had anyone come along quite like him. So how could he not be a Hall of Famer?"

Stark makes the provocative point that Ichiro's Japanese stats should count toward Hall consideration.

"I really believe that when you have a player of this level of greatness who achieved similar greatness in Japan, we should respect what those years represent," he said. "That's the second-best league in the world. It isn't exactly the Little League World Series."

Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame, points out that the official name is the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

"Our rules are pretty straightforward," Idelson said. "We ask voters to look at their major-league career, plus character, integrity, sportsmanship. Beyond that, it's up to each voter to decide."

Idelson noted that the stats package sent out to voters each year to help evaluate candidates includes only major-league stats. "But as a normal human, how can you overlook the dominance he had in the Pacific League for a decade?" he added.

Again, that issue is rapidly becoming moot. Ichiro is racking up hits at a rate accomplished only in the first half of the 20th century, when it was an entirely different game. Or even the 19th century, when you consider that Willie Keeler's record of eight consecutive 200-hit seasons began in 1894 and ended in 1901 — exactly 100 years before Ichiro's streak started.

Ichiro will likely reach 2,000 hits in fewer games than anyone except Hall of Famer Al Simmons. It took Simmons 1,390 games. Ichiro has played 1,396 games. George Sisler, whose season hits record of 257 Ichiro broke with 262 in 2004, is second at 1,414 games.

Ichiro is tied with Lou Gehrig for the modern record of 200 hits and 100 runs scored in eight different seasons. That could go down this year as well.

It's hard now to bet against Ichiro reaching 3,000 hits, which has always been a drop-dead standard for Hall of Fame inclusion.

He is signed for three seasons beyond this one. With an average of 200 hits each season (which would be a substantial drop from his current average of 226 hits for his first eight years), that would put him about 350 short of 3,000.

After the 2012 season, Ichiro will turn 39. It's hard to imagine he would quit while so close to 3,000 hits. Barring injury — and he has been remarkably healthy while with the Mariners, missing just 28 out of a possible 1,424 games — I see Ichiro persevering until he reaches 3,000.

He would have one more reason to keep after that goal. When he reaches 3,000, Ichiro would have 4,278 hits combined between the Mariners and Blue Wave. That would put him 22 hits ahead of Pete Rose's all-time mark of 4,256, making Ichiro, by international standards, the new Hit King.

Even if he doesn't get there, Ichiro has one honor awaiting him Charlie Hustle will likely never attain: a plaque in Cooperstown.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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