Dispatch #5: American Berserk
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.
As the color-saturated and emotionally-ratcheted twentieth century narrowed toward the vise of the new millennium, a novel strain of anxiety came to restrict our collective breathing. It was likely nothing more than garden variety millennial angst – the nagging fear of bank accounts wiped out and airplanes dropping from the sky at the stroke of midnight, Y2K – but it found strange expressions in the cultural sphere: survivalist cult narratives, horrible TV movies, an odd affinity for synthetic materials and artificiality, The Matrix. We were, quite consciously, preparing for a future we were sure was within reach, and we were hedging our bets as to whether that future would bring continued prosperity or global catastrophe.
Baseball wasn’t immune. In tune with this sense of impending disruption, while at the same time continuing to lick the wounds suffered during the 1994 players’ strike, baseball – or the cadre of oligarchs and technocrats who control and steer it – seemed to sense that the game’s implicit focus on history, and the aspects of its character indivisible from the comparatively communal and community-minded mores of the nineteenth century, might put it at odds with or out of the favor of a decidedly future-thinking populace. In the face of all that, the game got a little desperate.
Matters arguably reached peak absurdity in 1998. On July 18 of that year the Seattle Mariners staged “Turn Ahead the Clock Night” during a game against the Kansas City Royals at the UFO-like Kingdome, a strange promotion which claimed to present baseball as it might look in 2027: sleeveless pullover uniforms, logos oversized and askew, shiny silver cleats and gloves, and a DeLorean dispatched to transport the man set to throw the ceremonial first pitch. It was garish and disposable and fun, and Major League Baseball liked it so much that they repeated and extended the promotion the following season.
Of course 1998 was also the summer that America was captivated by moonshots, and the chase for Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 homers. Bunyanesque St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa raced to see who would be the first to meet or best Maris’ mark. McGwire – large and solid as an oak – had four through his first four games and was off to the races. Sosa – who’d begun his career as a whippet-lean member of the White Sox, but who was by ’98 just as dense as McGwire – got off to a slow start, but closed the gap by clearing the fence twenty times in the month of June. By mid-August they were tied at 47, and media coverage went from heated to breathless. McGwire eventually won the race, hitting his 62nd on September 8th, and finishing the campaign with 70. Sosa stalled near the finish line and wound up with 66 – thirty more home runs than he’d hit the previous season.
In American Pastoral, Philip Roth identified a strain of dark anxiety he deemed the “indigenous American berserk,” and the contemporary home run seems to speak to that anxiety, expressing aspects of America’s gobbling ambition, its voraciousness, the muscly sense that to grind a ball into dust is a better and more exclamatory statement than a thing done lightly or delicately.
Listen to Andrew discuss the essay in the fifth episode of our limited-run podcast, Caught Looking.
It’s always been there, of course, or at least since the revolution that Babe Ruth waged on the game Ty Cobb knew and had mastered. Yankees teammates Maris and Mickey Mantle followed in Ruth’s footsteps in the ’60s, and in the ’70s Orioles manager Earl Weaver preached the value of “pitching, defense, and the three-run home run.” The Swede, Roth’s “large, smooth, optimistic American,” swung for the fences, too.
In the anti-intellectual atmosphere of Bush II’s post-9/11 America, though, the swift and brutal rip through the strike zone seemed more appropriate than ever, and thus was promoted to a primary characteristic of the game, a trend that continues today, and which doesn’t figure to go away. It’s become too revered, taken on too big a profile, assumed too great an importance in the game as it’s played now, to allow us to step wholly back. If the Age of Shock and Awe deserved Barry Bonds, these even more berserk days are perhaps best exemplified by Yankees slugger Aaron Judge, a human not apparently built to the same scale as you and I, with a swing which leaves no space for nuance.
Sacrifice bunts, this is all to say, don’t attract viewers in 2018. They lack the inherent violence of the home run, the assertion of power, the unmistakable muscle. A base hit is accretive and team-oriented, it suggests faith in the hitters behind you; the home run is individual and ego-focused, one player’s blood, bone, and sinew held aloft to deafening cheers.
What’s notable insofar as the subject of this column is concerned is the contrary nature of Ichiro Suzuki’s career in the face of all of this. Ichiro arrived in America in the midst of what’s now called the Steroid Era, his rookie campaign coinciding with Bonds’ 73-homer year, but the fleet and wiry outfielder never hit more than 15 in a season; of his 3,089 Major League hits, fewer than four percent were home runs. He has for the most part been content to let others hit the homers, as he believed he could be of more value to the team by getting on base. It’s a belief in a game played a different way, a style fading inexorably from sight, and with Ichiro, one of its greatest proponents, no longer playing, perhaps soon gone altogether.
His choice was apparently just that, and not an effort to obscure a lack of ability. Truth is Ichiro can hit home runs; he hits them every day, even now, in batting practice; rings them off facades and video boards, sends them ricocheting off empty seats, inspires the awe of teammates with balls that land in unlikely places. No less an authority than Bonds himself declared, during his brief tenure as the Marlins’ hitting coach, that Ichiro would win any home run derby he entered, “easy, hands down.”
But once the batting cage was wheeled away and the game’s first pitch had been delivered, Ichiro was metronomic in his production: base hit after base hit, swinging for the gaps between fielders, and not for the wall, steady and patient, the hits piling up, the faith in the hitters behind him dependable even when they were not. It was his game, and he played it that way for eighteen seasons, consciously contrary to the prevailing style. While everybody in his midst did their best to emulate the Babe, Ichiro was out there doing his best George Sisler (and in the process, besting Sisler's record, once thought unbreakable, for hits in a season).
At this point, arguing against the home run is pointless. The results are in, and brawn has won – both in the ratings, and on the field – and now, squarely within the launch angle era, the essential violence of the act hints that baseball’s ostensible pastorality, and all that was meant to suggest about America, was misquoted, or ill understood, or more darkly still, a craven dishonesty. And now comes the news that since 2015 the balls in use, while not juiced, per se, are mysteriously more aerodynamic than they used to be, resulting in yet another spike in home runs: 6,105 were hit in 2017, more than in any previous season.
Ichiro played a game more reminiscent of the Dead-ball era, a full century earlier, when home runs were rare, and a combination of bat control and baserunning acumen were the most coveted skills. Balls rarely cleared fences. When Safeco Field opened in 1999, it had one of the most spacious outfields in baseball, with the center field fence sitting 409 feet from home plate. The dimensions depressed the Mariners’ offensive numbers and thus drew complaints, and the walls were eventually moved in to make the park more hitter-friendly. In contrast, the Huntington Avenue Grounds, the original home of the Boston Red Sox, measured 635 feet to center in 1909. Clearly, it hosted a different game.
One has the sense that Ichiro could have played there, or in any of that age’s vast and poorly-maintained grounds, and found just as much success as he did in the modern game. In fact, given his foot speed, he might even have been credited with more home runs; picture him placing a ball over a fielder’s head to see it rattle around those pitted, pre-Turf Builder yards, scampering all the way around and home again. But he didn’t play then; he arrived during the most homer-happy time in the game’s history and, in defying that new orthodoxy, engaged in a thrillingly anachronistic style of play that made him, in part, the player he was: an outsider, un-American, funky, a player apart. A visitor not just from foreign shores, but from a distant era, inaccessible now, and never to return.
header image: "mark mcgwire," rick dikeman / wikimedia commons