Dispatch #2: The weight of expectation
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.
Here is one story, among many:
Rob Dibble was once a member of the Cincinnati Reds’ dominating relief pitching corps dubbed “The Nasty Boys,” whose collective professional zenith came in 1990, when they were instrumental in helping the Reds sweep Oakland in the World Series. Dibble, twice an All-Star, had a rocket for a right arm to go with a short-fuse temper. The rocket burned quickly, and then flared out; he pitched his last big-league inning for Milwaukee in 1995. Thereafter Dibble reinvented himself as a broadcaster and purveyor of fiery hot takes, where that short fuse often landed him in trouble, or out of a job. But in the spring of 2001 he was in the employ of ESPN and he found there occasion to voice the opinion that Ichiro Suzuki – then in his first Spring Training with the Seattle Mariners – would not find great success in Major League Baseball. So confident was Dibble that Ichiro would not win the batting title that he pledged to streak through Times Square with Ichiro’s #51 tattooed on his hindquarters should Ichiro earn the distinction.
Ichiro, of course, had a pretty decent season in 2001, with accolades and awards including an All-Star appearance, the Rookie of the Year award, and the MVP trophy. He led the league in stolen bases (56), and base hits (242). He was given a Gold Glove for defensive excellence, and a Silver Slugger prize as one of the league’s three best hitting outfielders. He also won the batting title with a .350 average.
There’s satisfaction in knowing that the debt was eventually owed (though little in seeing the evidence of it being paid), because Dibble expressed, however gaseously, what was in the moment a popular sentiment: that by virtue of its differences and perceived deficiencies, Japanese baseball was not capable of producing a star-calibre Major League hitter. Among the list of knocks against Japanese baseball: the parks are smaller, the ball is smaller and lighter, the season is shorter (144 games vs. 162). There are also, as you might imagine, a host of other “reasons” which range from vague preference to outright xenophobia. They may be distilled as such: it just isn’t the American game.
Which is absolutely correct. It’s the Japanese game, adapted from the American game as it was introduced to Tokyo in the 1870s. Into the 20th century it thrived as an amateur sport, popular among high schools and universities. In the 1920s the Koshien high school tournament grew so popular that they built the fifty thousand-seat stadium where it’s still played today. There was such a mania for baseball by the 1930s that a tour of hi-wattage US stars was organized, including Ruth, Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx. Shortly thereafter the first Japanese professional league was operating. After the Second World War necessitated an interruption to the 1945 season the Japan Baseball League was back to playing a full schedule in 1946, and in 1949 reorganized itself into Nippon Professional Baseball, comprising the Central and Pacific leagues, which operate to this day, and are what we generally refer to when we speak of Japanese baseball. As of 2018, of the fifty-five Japanese-born players to have competed in Major League Baseball, only four did not first play in NPB.
The first Japanese-born ballplayer in the Majors was Masanori Murakami who, in 1962 was sent by his NPB team, the Nankai Hawks, to play with the San Francisco Giants’ minor league squad in Fresno, California, on what was meant to be a short-term loan. When called up to the big club in 1964 Murakami pitched well in relief, and the Giants thought they’d hold on to him for a while. The Hawks eventually demanded the return of their asset, and by ’66 Murakami was once again playing in Japan. He never again played in America (though he later did some scouting for the Giants, post-retirement), and the contentious or confused nature of the exchange might have established some mutual distrust between MLB and NPB; 31 years would pass before another Japanese-born player would suit up in the Majors. To do so, pitcher Hideo Nomo would have to exploit a loophole in the rules, retiring as a player with the Kintetsu Buffaloes in order to be granted international free agent status, and thereafter signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nomo’s experience with the labyrinthine rules governing such player movement led to the development of the international posting system in place today, whereby Japanese teams may elect to make a player available to MLB teams in exchange for a posting fee. Nomo’s success with the Dodgers – he was the 1995 Rookie of the Year – increased demand. The exodus had begun.
Prior to Ichiro in 2001, however, only pitchers had made the Pacific jump, which certainly contributed to the doubts confronting Ichiro that first spring. It also didn’t help that he had, and has, a body type more common among jockeys than sluggers. What became apparent, though, as that first summer warmed and then broke into its full floral display, was that Ichiro had a body and a set of skills perfectly suited to a style of play most certainly foreign to the homer-happy American game circa the turn of this century. In exploiting said game’s ample seams and pores, he found great – historic, in fact – success.
This is all front of mind now because the latest import from Japan generating clicks and views is himself now showing up doubters. Shohei Ohtani, in five seasons with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of NPB, was a three-time All-Star, an MVP, and a champion. He won 42 games as a pitcher, struck out 624 batters, and threw the fastest pitch in NPB history. He also hit 48 home runs, primarily while playing in the outfield, or as designated hitter, on days he wasn’t pitching. He made the decision in 2017 to submit himself to the international posting process and Major League teams, lured by that rare combination of pitching acumen and hitting power, made him their best offers. The Los Angeles Angels emerged the winners, so come February, Ohtani arrived at their camp in Tempe, Arizona with a great deal of expectation piled atop his shoulders.
He did not fare particularly well. By the close of camp Ohtani had failed to prove himself to the satisfaction of his critics as either a hitter or a hurler. There was some question as to whether the Angels should send him to the minors for seasoning or, if that would constitute too great a humiliation for organization and player alike, keep him on the bench in the season’s early days.
It was reminiscent of Ichiro’s introduction in more ways than one, and in fact mirrored that of virtually every player who’s attempted the transition from Japan to MLB. In each case the player has been made to suffer an inordinate weight, to stand as a one-man plebiscite on the viability of Japanese baseball. The doubts are raised anew, the deficiencies reiterated, the odds of success placed low. It seems not to matter that there’s enough of a history now to say that, though there have been some notable disappointments, Japanese players have found great success in the majors (Nomo, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish, and many dozens of others besides).
Ohtani, as it now appears, was either slow to get his legs, or was executing a beautiful con. The Angels elected to use their new tool and, as of this writing, two weeks into the regular season, he’s won both games he’s pitched, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning in his second, struck out 18 batters, collected a base hit in his first at bat – on the first pitch he saw – doubled, tripled, and belted three home runs. His doubters are now forced to concede the very real possibility that Ohtani, who is built less like a jockey and more like a slender column of granite, could emerge as the greatest combined pitching-hitting threat since Babe Ruth excelled at both, a century ago.
Beyond their divergent physical statures, there is an obvious point of departure between Ichiro and Ohtani. Where Ichiro has long worked to perfect the sort of incremental game most often associated with Japan, Ohtani is playing the quintessential American game, one characterized by power – 98 mph fastballs and tape-measure home runs. Ohtani’s continued success would serve to blur the line between the Japanese and American games, leaving critics with no more planks in their platform of doubt save the most obvious and base one.
header image: keith allison / wikimedia commons