"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Saturday, July 17, 2004

'The Meaning of Ichiro' and the meanness of yakyu

Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

The Meaning of Ichiro
By Robert Whiting
Warner Books, 318 pp, 25.95 dollars

A new star rose in the east in 2000. New at least to North American fans of major league baseball.
In his first year in the majors, this virtual unknown won the American League batting title by hitting .350, with a league-leading 242 hits, 59 of them infield trips to first. He led the league in runs scored with 127 and bases stolen with 56 and pushed his team to a league record for victories, earning Gold Glove, rookie of the year and most valuable player honors along the way.
Most Japanese had certainly heard of Ichiro Suzuki, even if the Giants-centric television coverage of Japanese pro baseball meant most fans rarely got to see him play. While he had won seven batting titles in a row in Japan, the appearance of such a phenomenon took most MLB fans by complete surprise.
Fans of America's national pastime wondering how to make sense of this sudden domination of their game by a player who is the product of what was long supposed to be an inferior game would do well to pick up Robert Whiting's The Meaning of Ichiro.
Whiting is the premier English-language writer on Japanese baseball. His first two books, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (1977) and You Gotta Have Wa (1989), are considered the standard texts on the subject and the latter is often found on reading lists for courses on Japanese culture.
While these books, along with a third, Slugging It Out in Japan (1991), cowritten with Major League Baseball and Yomiuri Giants slugger Warren Cromartie, focus on the experiences of foreign players in Japan, The Meaning of Ichiro chronicles the impact and adventures of Japanese players in MLB.
Written with a North American audience in mind, The Meaning of Ichiro, in part, recaps the history of besuboru from the 1880s advent of seishin yakyu or spiritual baseball at The First Higher School of Tokyo, known in Japanese as Ichiko, up to the present day. In particular, Whiting traces the Japanese approach to baseball as an extension of martial arts that stresses endless repetition to achieve perfection of form and emphasis on building fighting spirit and mental toughness. "A team motto urged participants to practice so hard that they urinated blood, while another team rule forbade complaining of injury or pain," writes Whiting of Ichiko.
From such roots comes the more modern 1,000-fungo drill, 200-pitch practice sessions and year-round training techniques employed by Japanese professional baseball.
Whiting's examination of the institutionalized harshness of yakyu may help to explain players' willingness to put up with the conditions of indentured servitude that go hand in hand with a pro career. A major part of the book deals with the efforts of team owners and management to discourage players from jumping leagues.
Much credit is given here to pitcher Hideo Nomo, the second Japanese major leaguer, and the first in more than 30 years, for his courage in standing up to an unfair system. Credit also goes to "the most hated man in Japanese baseball," Don Nomura, who found the contract loophole that allowed Nomo to begin the exodus of stars to MLB. Whiting shines a light into the dark corners of the Japanese game with his descriptions of the selfish and often sinister machinations of team owners.
Biographical sketches of Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, Kazuo Matsui, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Kazuhiro Sasaki and others illustrate Whiting's case that while Japanese players are more disciplined and more highly trained than MLB players, it takes a sort of personality rarely found in the pro yakyu ranks to make the leap to the majors.
The discipline and devotion to the game evidenced in the early years of Ichiro's life are unparalleled in MLB. From the age of 3, he trained six or more hours a day with the focus of a Zen acolyte. Whiting quotes a passage from a school essay the future star wrote when he was 12 years old:
"My dream when I grow up is to be a first-class professional baseball player...I have the confidence necessary to reach that goal. I started practicing from age 3. From the age of 9 I have practiced 360 out of 365 days a year and I practice hard. I only had five or six hours (in a year) to play with my friends. That's how much I practiced. So I think I can surely become a pro."
The constant thread in The Meaning of Ichiro, aside from Whiting's clean, straightforward, anecdotal style, is that Japanese pro baseball and Japanese players, while different in many important respects from their North American MLB counterparts, are by no means inferior. Whiting presents a persuasive case for the need for both baseball cultures to learn from each other.
Whiting's contention seems to be the Japanese game needs to respect individual players more and leave the "practice until you collapse and then practice more" approach in the 19th century where it belongs and loosen up a little. MLB, on the other hand, had better learn to expect a little competition, shape up, and remember the hit-and-run days before steroid-enhanced power hitters and pampered superstars.