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As Ichiro eclipses Cobb, let's remember what he was

Ichiro Suzuki just put Ty Cobb in the shade -- at least in terms of career hits. Between Ichiro’s 2,914 in the majors and 1,278 in the Japanese leagues, the Marlins outfielder passed Cobb’s once-famed mark of 4,191 with a first-inning single Saturday against the Cardinals. That, friends, is something you can simultaneously celebrate and lament.

In general, it seems totally appropriate to link Suzuki and Cobb because they were both all-world players who could do just about everything on a diamond. They would terrorize pitchers at the plate or on the basepath when they weren't playing brilliant defense in right field.

When it comes to career performance, I’m in favor of counting Ichiro’s Japanese stats, as far as talking about his historical impact or all-time greatness. Qualitatively, the Japanese leagues might differ from the majors a little or a lot over time, but the level of competition isn’t as varied as that between the best and worst teams in the minuscule, all-white, eight-team leagues of Cobb’s time. Back then, before even allowing for the evil impact of segregation, between the reserve clause and the relatively independent minor leagues, you couldn’t guarantee all the best white talent was playing in the American and National Leagues. I think hallowing the records set then doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I don’t think we should be in the business of hallowing any stats. They’re just part of the historical record, after all, and they tell us something but not everything about the people who play.

To my way of thinking, Ichiro’s greatness has never relied on his passing Cobb or anything he has done the past few seasons, nor would it if he clings to his career long enough to plink another 68 base hits and pass Pete Rose for the all-time professional hits record or another 87 to get to 3,000 hits on this side of the Pacific. Those kinds of counting stats are testaments to longevity more than anything, an opportunity a player might earn for what he did -- not for what he can still do. But that also requires someone willing to put you on the field. (Rose corrupted that process by putting himself in the lineup over better hitters, but that’s an argument for another day.)

I’m also working from the position that a Baseball Hall of Fame without Ichiro Suzuki in it means something less than it should. Ichiro’s greatness rests not with any one raw number but on what he used to do on the field, which the numbers simply reflected: Ten straight 200-hit seasons to start his MLB career testify to a guy with extraordinary plate coverage. The 40 stolen bases per year? A symptom of his remarkable speed and great baserunning skill. Add his getting on base at a .380 clip, and he was a guy who made runs happen; he scored 100 or more in each of his first eight seasons. He’s one of the most memorable players of his generation, someone you were glad you got to see.

Except, perhaps, until this season. Ichiro’s .877 OPS tear in August has helped put a slightly better shine on what has been an exceptionally ugly year at the plate, and it has boosted his stats to make this just barely his worst season ever, as opposed to easily the worst. Use almost any advanced rate stat for offensive performance -- OPS, OPS+, wOBA, wRC+ -- and it’s clear Ichiro is having a season a step down from his 2011-14 decline with the Mariners and Yankees. If he were still on the Yankees, you’d hear a lot more complaining, but playing part-time for a Marlins team that quickly silenced any expectations, his sad season has been easy to miss.

If things had gone well -- if Giancarlo Stanton or Christian Yelich hadn’t had to go on the DL, or if Marcell Ozuna had busted out the way he was expected to -- you might not have noticed. But as the Fish floundered, Ichiro has gotten to play; that's about what you’d expect on a team that has had to trust its fourth outfielder after things went wrong with every starter. Ichiro can still play an outfield corner effectively, even as he nears his 42nd birthday. Although he can’t do it as well as he used to, he can still spank a single every once in a while.

As willing as anybody might be to keep playing, that’s a decision somebody else makes for you. Obviously, Ichiro wants to keep playing, so maybe he’s fortunate a team such as the Marlins exists to give him the opportunity. It makes for a distinction between his situation and Rose’s: Somebody else has to say whether he can play, even if it has to be with a semi-serious carnival franchise like the Marlins.

Ultimately, that makes his situation similar to how Cobb's finished up: The Georgia Peach was playing for Connie Mack’s also-ran A’s until he was benched at the end of July 1928, even though he could still hit. The A’s needed and wanted to get a rangy, young center fielder named Mule Haas into the lineup and move Bing Miller into a corner, and ultimately, that combination paid off, as the A’s won the World Series in 1929 and 1930.

The lesson here is that in the end, even the greats get replaced. Thanks to his circumstances, Ichiro is getting to make some history, but the thing to remember is what he used to do -- not what he’s doing now.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.