Dispatch #1: A handful of dirt

Dispatch #1: A handful of dirt

Baseball season is here, and sinkhole has drafted contributor Andrew Forbes to accompany our readers through it. All season long, Forbes will be following the exploits of Seattle Mariners legend Ichiro Suzuki, and using Ichiro as a lens through which to view the game, both in the US and Japan, its history, and the culture surrounding it.

 

 

They’re playing the Spring Koshien in Japan right now, just as we’re settling in for the opening of another big league season. The Koshien is a high school baseball tournament roughly equivalent in import and excitement to March Madness, and filled with just as much emotion and drama. It’s actually the first of two annual tournaments; the Spring Koshien kicks off a season of ball which culminates with August’s Summer Koshien, the larger of the two. In each, dozens of teams from across Japan play in instant-elimination games in front of crowds of nearly 50,000 at Kobe’s Koshien Stadium, and before millions on TV. The pressure is impressive. Win or lose, most participants end the tournament in tears.

If you can locate a reliable streaming feed, you won’t be sorry: boys in brilliant white uniforms, in soft spring sunlight, play conservative, fundamentally sound baseball, as near to aesthetic perfection as you can imagine, the sole blemish provided by the telltale ping of their aluminum bats. The pageant is opulent: players, before the first pitch, stand outside their dugouts, and then sprint en masse toward the plate, where they meet in the batter’s box, standing in straight, opposing lines. They bow to one another and to the day’s umpires before sprinting out to their positions. The first pitch is heralded by the sounding of an air raid siren. Fans, dressed in school colours, sing, play brass instruments, shout through small bullhorns.

Since 1915, most of Japan’s elite baseball players have seen action in the Koshien, including home run king Sadaharu Oh, one-time Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui, current Angels rookie Shohei Ohtani, and future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro played in the Koshien in 1991, primarily as a pitcher, though he did manage to hit .505 for his three-year high school career. His efforts, impressive though they were, were not sufficient to help his school, Aikodai Meiden, emerge victorious from the Koshien’s imposing gauntlet. As consolation he was drafted by the Pacific League’s ORIX BlueWave, where he went on to rack up 1,278 base hits, and to become a superstar of Michael Jordan-like stature in Japan.

Ichiro is about to begin his twelfth season with the Seattle Mariners, albeit after an interruption of six campaigns spent with the New York Yankees and the Miami Marlins. He arrived in camp earlier this month after a winter of contract uncertainty which very nearly saw him without a Major League team. He was reportedly mulling the possibility of returning to Japan when a slew of injuries to the Mariners’ corps of everyday outfielders thrust him into the arms of his old team. He returns to Safeco Field tonight, when the Mariners open up against the Cleveland American League Baseball Club. Ichiro will dress in the home team’s uniform for the first time since the first Obama administration, and he’ll do so not as an All-Star right fielder and on base threat, but as a left fielder called upon only out of necessity. His reintroduction to the Seattle faithful will be warm and emotional – precisely the sort of circumstance which tends to prompt fans to spend princely sums on apparel and souvenirs. Even the least cynical among us is forced to consider the likelihood that this informed the decision-making process; there were other, younger outfielders among the field of available free agents when the Mariners committed to bringing Ichiro back to the Pacific Northwest.

Ichiro is 44 years old, which is, in baseball terms, essentially paleolithic. White Sox legend Minnie Miñoso collected a base hit at 50, Charley O’Leary was likely 58 when he pinch-hit for the St. Louis Browns in 1934, and Satchel Paige pitched at 59. The thread common to all of these feats is that they were publicity stunts engineered by some of the greatest hucksters in the history of both baseball and capitalist enterprise. Neither O’Leary nor Miñoso were viable everyday ballplayers by the time they took their last cuts (Satch was another story, a man who did indeed seem to have found a way to cheat time). Ichiro, meanwhile, is aiming to provide quality at bats and adequate defense for a team which hopes to contend for a Wild Card berth. But the stark fact is that the list of players who’ve proven effective at such an age is a very short one, and it’s heavy on pitchers; junkballers, and masters of the knuckleball, a pitch which places roughly as much strain on the body as does a game of catch with your six year-old.

But then, there have been so few like Ichiro, whose relentless training regime predates his time at Koshien. The precision, order, and ritual with which he has approached the game, as well as the endless practice, have allowed him to maintain the same figure and the same litheness he’s always possessed. There are no extra pounds, and he appears as flexible as ever, if not quite as quick. That regime, and those firm and unusual rituals, made him the object of both wonder and derision when he arrived in America in the spring of 2001. He didn’t look the part of a ballplayer, at least not of the classically American variety. The logic, when carried forward to its conclusion, suggested he wouldn’t be able to play the game here. He showed immediately that he could, and brilliantly (he was named both Rookie of the Year and the American League’s Most Valuable Player for 2001), though he did so in a way which was thrillingly different from everyone who’d done it here before.

What makes Ichiro such a compelling ballplayer and figure, then and now – for me, anyway, and hopefully for you, if you decide to join me on this season-long look at his accomplishments, his impact, and the cultural implications of what he’s done and is doing – is precisely what makes watching the Spring Koshien so entrancing. It’s baseball, unquestionably, but baseball after a direct collision of the familiar and the foreign. Baseball as filtered through a completely unique set of traditions.

Inherent in the excitement of a tournament like Koshien is the poignancy of the possibility that the young players, once eliminated from the contest, will never again know the terror and pleasure of playing on that old stadium’s signature all-dirt infield and green, felt-like outfield. Similarly, there’s an added frisson to everything Ichiro does on the field now, because he does it all in the face of time’s relentless advancement. Notwithstanding the man’s insistence that he’d like to play until he’s at least fifty years old, there’s a distinct possibility that every achievement – each putout, each base hit – could very well be his last.

There’s a tradition at Koshien that, at the end of each game, the eliminated teams’ players stoop to the ground and gather a handful of infield dirt and carry it away in a bag, or a jar, or in the pockets of their uniform pants. I was there, the treasured dirt attests in later years, whatever came after in life, I played there, and I knew the glory. I suspect Ichiro won’t bend to the temptation of such nostalgia this season, or in any theoretical future seasons, but that needn’t stop those of us in the cheap seats, or watching from home, from latching onto such mementos. Consider this my handful of dirt.

header image: "summer koshien 2009 final," 百楽兎 / wikimedia commons

Dispatch #2: The weight of expectation

Dispatch #2: The weight of expectation