Like most six-year-olds in the METCO serviced suburbs of Boston, I spent the last two weeks of October 1986 with a Red Sox cap on my head. When school let out, those of us who did not take the early bus into the city huddled up in the pick-up/drop-off circle and practiced our lines. Most of us could only list the names of the ballplayers and our arbitrary preferences, but those boys who had been born into families of fanatics wowed us with jargon that seemed to provide them with a greater stake in the excitement of those two weeks. The morning before Game 3, I got up early to read the sports section and came to school with these phrases locked up in my head: “Let’s get out the Oil Can, Rocket is throwing tonight, watch out! Can Hendu recreate his ALCS magic?”1 When I tried them out in the bus circle, the kids nodded along. That night, I asked my father to teach me how to read a box score. He complied with the sincerity and gravity expected of that situation. The mornings after Games 4 and 5, I came to school with a ripped out square of newspaper in the pocket of my raincoat and ran my classmates through the significance of those numbers and columns.
The Red Sox were up three games to two. We in the bus circle were just starting to feel invested in the team.
Ichiro Suzuki arrived in Seattle in the spring of 2001 to mixed expectations. When news of the signing broke the previous winter, Bobby Valentine, then the manager of the New York Mets, declared to the media that the slightly built 5’9″ right fielder was one of the best five players in the world.
Despite Valentine’s endorsements, baseball writers around the country openly questioned how a player who had spent his entire career hitting fastballs that rarely hit 92 mph on the radar gun would adjust to the power pitching in the major leagues. Rob Dibble, who in the early nineties joined up with Norm Charlton and Randy Myers to form a hard-throwing Cincinnati Reds bullpen known as the Nasty Boys, spoke for the doubters when he predicted that Ichiro’s batting average would never break .300. (Ichiro’s career average in Japan: a staggering .351) A week before the season began, Dibble, then a commentator on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight program, made the following statement on the air: “I will run naked through Times Square in the dead of winter if Ichiro wins the batting title.” Nine months later, Ichiro took home the lion’s share of the post-season hardware and Dibble made his run, albeit in a speedo. In addition to the batting title, Ichiro took home the MVP award, a Gold Glove, the stolen base title and the American League’s Rookie of the Year.
the MVP and a Gold Glove in 1985) More impressively, the Seattle Mariners, a franchise who had lost three first-ballot Hall of Famers in Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson over the course of the previous three off-seasons, broke a league record by winning 116 games. At the center was an enigmatic 5’9, 160 pound man from Japan who only spoke through an interpreter and was rarely seen without his trademark wrap-around glasses.
I moved to Seattle the November before Ichiro’s arrival because I had been kicked out of a small, liberal arts college in Maine that I, in part, had chosen to attend because it offered me a chance to be surrounded by Red Sox fans again. I don’t remember much about that first winter in the Pacific Northwest, except that I waited it out alone. I spent most of my time in used bookstores because I was convinced that I could feel balls of radiation hurling out of the lead paint that hung in cracked sheets on the wall. On Sunday mornings, when the hallways of my converted hotel filled with the dull stink of nag champa, I walked down to Aileen’s Sports Bar on Broadway and watched football on a shaky 13 inch TV screen, accompanied by a cast of regulars that reminded me, at least in the most literal sense, of what might happen if a Raymond Carver story collection collided with a Russ Meyer film set. My favorite of these characters was a weekend transvestite named Karla. During halftime of a Patriots game, he insisted that we drive my car across country to live with his sister and her husband in Nashua, New Hampshire2.
The nights I stayed in, I sat in the armchair, shucked oysters for dinner and went through the canon of juvenile manuals of detachment. I read Dr. Alan Watts, Thich Naht Hanh and Chogyam Trungpa.
I transcribed all the block quotes in Franny and Zooey into a memo book?the type with that irresistibly nostalgic black marbleized cover?and went to the used bookstore down the street to buy up all the texts Salinger referenced. During my walks to the bookstore, I suppressed the hope that the girl with Bettie Page bangs and discolored thin arms that reminded of dandelion stalks, would be behind the counter.
Her unbalanced recommendation shelf?Denis Johnson, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf and Shirley Jackson?reminded me of someone back east who I had recently decided to stop talking to. For reasons still not clear to me, I stopped eating pork and red meat and practiced breathing every morning.
This immersion into what I thought was an Eastern Way of Life could not be sustained by my maturity at the time and what resulted was not the koan-y clarity I sought, but rather a clutter of half-formed or half-understood ideas that created a martyr out of loneliness and a virtue out of narcissism.
I walked by dozens of homeless teenagers a day and ignored them because I could not tolerate their shallow version of karma. I pitied the couples who I saw canoodling in the neighborhood park because I deemed their desire for one another to be too of this world. One afternoon, I ignored a homeless girl who snarled, “Fucking chink asshole!” After mulling over the correct response while walking up and down the aisles of an African crafts store which specialized in finger pianos, I took 40 dollars of cash out of an ATM and handed it to the girl. I can no longer say why I chose this particular path, except that it had something to do with the bizarre malapropism I had carved into the blond oak frame of my futon. “We’re not all meant to tow the line.”
I listened to the Ichiro talk on the local sports talk radio station every morning during my drive to work. Throughout the winter, most of the writers and talk-show hosts echoed Dibble and remained skeptical that a Japanese position player could come over and make the adjustments necessary to become an impact player in the Major Leagues.
When the small, but vocal throng of Ichiro supporters brought up Hideo Nomo’s instant success for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, the conventional wisdom replied that the situations were different because Nomo relied mostly on gimmicks: an exaggerated windup where he turned his back completely to the batter and a baffling split-finger fastball the likes of which most major leaguers had not yet seen. It is a truism in baseball that in an at-bat in which both the pitcher and the batter know nothing about one another, the batter is at a disadvantage because he must react to anything the pitcher might throw. Ichiro would be learning on the job. But by in large, this was not the argument made in the papers or on the radio. A month before Ichiro flew stateside to take his first cuts at the Mariners spring training facility in Arizona, one of the local sports radio hosts summed up the prevailing sentiment when he said, “Nomo could get by his first year by whirligigging around and throwing foreign junk at the American hitters.
They hadn’t seen it before and so he did alright. Now that Nomo’s been in the league a couple of years, the batters are starting to tear into his Japanese bag of tricks. Ichiro’s not going to have that luxury?the first time he sees a Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens fastball, he’s going to see that Japanese tricks don’t cut it over here.”
By the first week of June, Ichiro had piled up three 4-hit games, back-to-back hitting streaks of fifteen and twenty-three games, a .361 batting average and was on track to break the Major League record for hits in a season. In a mid-June game in Oakland, he unleashed a throw from right field that traveled at a seemingly impossible low and accurate trajectory to nail a stunned Terrence Long at third base. After the game, a bewildered Long told reporters, “I’m not the fastest guy in the world, but that’s got to be the best throw I’ve ever seen.”
On the eve of the All-Star Break, Ivan Rodriguez, one of the great catchers of all time, proclaimed, “Ichiro is the best player in baseball right now.” The city of Seattle, which usually splits its sports enthusiasm between the Seahawks and the University of Washington’s football team, went Ichi-Gaga, prompting many Asian-Americans in the community to come forward with praise for the city’s embrace of a Japanese sports idol. Shawn Wong, a professor English at the University of Washington, went as far as to credit Ichiro with a heightening of cultural awareness within the city. In a guest editorial that appeared in the Seattle Times, he wrote, “I’m learning something about race, ethnicity and understanding that I didn’t know?As a professor3, I think it’s important for my students to articulate their opinions and understanding about what it is they learn. I often use theoretical terms such as “racialization” to explain the dynamics of race, culture and society.
Now I’m beginning to think an entire city can understand how race changes their culture and society and they can embrace and even encourage that change, but not necessarily understand how to describe that change.”
Like Wong, I believed that I was witnessing the collapse of stereotypes about Asians. My letters back to the east coast, which during the winter had alternated between a weird austerity and a cloying anger, focused now on the importance of sports in a society: how a meritocracy like baseball offered anyone a chance to showcase the talents of a people.
The Bookstore Bodhisattva life I had tried over the winter gave way to the restorative energy, steeped heavily in childhood nostalgia, offered up by the spring and the start of baseball season. (Strangely, I find that the warier I become of my own nostalgic traps for Opening Day, the weaker I feel in the knees whenever I walk into a stadium. It is almost as if my resistance to baseball’s sentimentality is also what feeds it.) Ichiro was my guy. I attended every home game that spring, usually by myself, and even enjoyed those rare disappointing nights when Ichiro went 0-5 and let us all down.
Before a sold-out Sunday afternoon ballgame, my fifth in a row to watch Ichiro, I spotted a kid loitering underneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct. He had on an oversized velour sweatshirt printed by a hip-hop label and a black-on-black fitted Mariners cap, two items of clothing that I usually associate with young gamblers and ticket scalpers. As he saw me approach, he produced a single ticket out of one of his cargo pockets and handed it over, muttering under his breath, “Thirty-five, best price for today’s game.” After looking over my shoulder?I have an irrational fear of policemen?I palmed over two twenties crumpled into a sweaty ball. When he told me he didn’t have any change, I waved him off and told him to just remember my face for any future transactions. He nodded, pumped his fist and said, “Go Ichiro.”
The seat was in Area 51, the section of bleachers directly behind the right field fence that still serves as the unofficial Japanese cheering section. An older Japanese couple sat to my right; both wore blindingly white Ichiro jerseys and flat-billed Mariners caps. They nodded, using the jerky, polite motion that many older Japanese use when greeting young Americans, and the husband offered me a bite of his plate of garlic fries. When I said, no thank you, his wife smiled, revealing a gold canine tooth that reminded me, strangely enough, of a photo of my great-grandmother taken when she lived on an orchard in what is now North Korea, a few years before the Japanese occupation during World War II that forced her to flee to the South.
In the photo, her hair is pulled back tightly and she is smiling and pointing at a yellowed tooth that my father explained was a gold implant and not the product of some old-world hygienic deficiency4.
When a group of Japanese students sitting in front of me passed around a red sign on which some indistinguishable Japanese slogan had been written, obscuring my view of the field, I could do nothing but sit back and mutter astonished, bitter words into the back of my hand. It finally occurred to me that I had been ignoring a blatant irony: I was born in Korea to Korean parents, meaning the only history I share with Ichiro is that on several occasions over the past thousand years, his people have brutally occupied my home country. Rooting for a Japanese baseball player because he fit in the same constructed minority category was like if an Irish ex-pat began rooting for Manchester United because the good people of China couldn’t distinguish between his accent and Wayne Rooney’s. And in most ways, it was a lot worse than that.
When I got home that night, I thumbed through my copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and read the following passage, heavily underlined back in my days as a malcontent freshman: “If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have deliberately been constructed to make you believe what white people say about you? Please try to be clear, dear [nephew], through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.” As I read that passage, I marveled at how the images of the Civil Rights Movement and the multi-cultural education I received as a child in Boston had never lost their buoyancy, always floating on the surface of my consciousness, and also how the rhetoric that underscored those images etherized, not completely into the air, but into a residue that led to a bitter expectancy. I could watch Ichiro stretching in the on-deck circle and conjure the image of Jackie Robinson sliding home in 1947, but that association never brought hope, but rather a wariness that both told me that the association was wrong and that the only reason why I was cheering for Ichiro was because someone, something else had lumped us together.
The images of Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson — the celluloid evidencing the social relevance of sports — captivated me in those first months after Ichiro’s arrival in Seattle, but inevitably the ballast of my liberal arts education found its foothold, reminding me of quotes like the following, written by Jackie Robinson on his participation in his first World Series: “There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people, but I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later and sing the anthem, I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947 at my birth in 1919, I know I never had it made.”
When I left the game in the third inning, I felt a dull anger towards the manipulation and re-manipulation of those images, how the inspiration one feels when he watches Jesse Owens standing in front of Hitler with his fist raised in the air, would always be undercut by words and explanations that could not possibly be ignored. Those unanchored images, I thought to myself, had made a punch-line out of me?complete with the historical disconnects and the revelry in the American spectacle?and also a good guesser out of the ticket scalper. Robinson and Baldwin’s rejection of the American spectacle, the images of Robinson running the bases, now so heavily promoted as the country pats itself on the back for the Civil Rights Movement, and Ichiro have existed in my mind as a polarized tangle ever since that Sunday afternoon ballgame and I cannot consider one without evoking the counter narrative.
Ten years later, I cannot see this hyper-awareness as a form of clairvoyance. Instead, my progressive, multi-cultural education merely created yet another conflict between half-formed ideas and inapplicable theory that prevented me from buying into Wong’s hopeful vision. It seems to me now that what I should have done was to shrug off Baldwin and understand that some ideas are better left on the pitch of the academy, where no score is kept and nothing is really ever at stake.
I suppose that somewhere I understand that doing so would be dishonest.
Philip Roth, in an essay entitled My Baseball Years, wrote that he loved the game for, “the mythic and aesthetic dimension that it gave to an American boy’s life- particularly to one whose grandparents could hardly speak English. For someone whose roots in America were strong but only inches deep, baseball was a kind of secular church that reached into every class and region of the nation and bound millions upon millions of us together in common concerns, loyalties, rituals, enthusiasms and antagonisms. Baseball made me understand what patriotism was about, at its best.” For those who might find Roth’s quote as over-explanatory and nostalgic as I do, there is the first line of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. As far as first lines to epic American novels go, “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” might not rank up there with “Call me Ishmael” or “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice?” but as far as baseball writing goes, there isn’t a line written that better captures the nation-mending appeal of the game for those that might not always feel included in other places. The boy with the halfway hopeful shine in his eye is a black boy from Harlem named Cotter who jumps the gate at the Polo Grounds to witness Bobby Thomson’s Shot-Heard-Around-the-World. He finds a seat in the bleachers next to a seemingly well-meaning white man named Bill Watterson who buys him a soda and says nice things like, “[You and I are] a couple of sportsmen taking their ease.” When Thomson’s home run lands in their section, Cotter and Bill Watterson both get a hand on the ball. A struggle ensues with Cotter eventually wrestling the ball from Bill Watterson’s hands. A frustrated Watterson reneges on his good will and chases Cotter out of the stadium. Following Cotter for several blocks, he tries to cajole and then intimidate the boy into giving him the ball. Cotter runs back home to Harlem- ball in hand- leaving Watterson behind.
The metaphor is obvious, but all baseball metaphors are obvious. Few are as accurate. If baseball is indeed America’s testing ground for understanding- as almost every piece written on Jackie Robinson in the past ten years has argued- DeLillo is right to point out that those on the outside will only be able to muster up halfway hope about the follow-through.
Still, it is Roth’s feel-good story that is the most common to baseball writing, and undoubtedly the most compelling. As long as baseball has been said to exist, writers have tried to wrest patriotic metaphor out of its history, its players, its stadiums and its fans. For Roth, baseball signaled his personal inclusion in such a thoroughly American process that he languishes in the redemptive possibilities that a shared interest in baseball might offer people who are separated along other lines. Similarly, my own stake in baseball comes from the fact that I am the foreign born child of Korean immigrants and that sometimes finding acceptance in this country is as simple as shouting out in a crowded bar that you know who started each game of the 1986 World Series because you, like the rest of the people there, watched every game on TV and talked about it the next day at school. Although nearly twenty years have passed since Buckner’s error, I do not think that I have been removed very far from the pick-up/drop-off circle. The kids still nod along. It would be incorrect, however, to say that my participation in the dialogue surrounding the national pastime makes me feel like “more of an American.” The phrase is too abstract for me to grasp.
At the same time, I cannot bring myself to mirror Baldwin’s rejection of acculturation, or the bitterness expressed by Jackie Robinson in his autobiography about playing in his first World Series game, because this sort of scorn only comes naturally to those for whom the National promise of baseball is either a given or a non-applicable. The irony of our multi-cultural education is that it provides us with only the vocabulary of the thoroughly entitled and the thoroughly disenfranchised. All us immigrants stand somewhere in between but lack the words to express our place.
I don’t feel comfortable evoking James Baldwin or Jackie Robinson or Philip Roth to explain my relationship with baseball. I understand there is a militia of smart people who will line up to bash me over the head with the word “problematic.” I suppose what I am asking is this: how else am I supposed to talk about it?
Perhaps, then, the best way to enjoy the game is to simply stop reading about it. Or, if at all possible, to follow the advice of Steven Jay Gould, who wrote “the silliest and most tendentious of baseball writing tries to wrest profundity from the spectacle of grown men hitting a ball with a stick by suggesting linkages between the sport and deep issues of morality parenthood, history, lost innocence, gentleness and so on, seemingly ad infinitum.” (Gould, for his own part, later wrote his own lengthy essay, published posthumously, about the meaning of his love for baseball and his relationship with his father?) After all, one of baseball’s gifts is that it allows its fans to immerse themselves completely in the demands of the game. For those of us who may not have the resumes to participate in the nation-building or the father-son euphoria that surrounds the national pastime, there are still the processes, the numbers, and the play on the field. A young lefty gets called up from Pawtucket because the aging DH lands on the DL after pulling his hamstring doing wind sprints during the pre-game warm-ups. However, the fan knows that this is most likely a cover-up to protect the pride of the aging DH, who has been in a 3-45 slump. Besides, the wind sprints excuse is total garbage, because as everybody knows, the manager always excuses the aging DH from any sort of pre-game running exercise. Most likely, the GM wanted to try out the young lefty, who has been hitting .320 over the past month at Pawtucket (.386 against righties), against the team coming in for the weekend who has three right-handed pitchers lined up. All of this is extrapolated from one line in the small print page of the sport section: Transactions: Boston Red Sox: Called up 1B Morgan Burkhardt from Pawtucket. The discussion of this one line can be stretched out over a dinner or over the course of days. A friend of mine from college and I have been arguing about Eddie Murray’s induction into the Hall of Fame for ten years. And as long as the talk remains on the action between the chalked lines and as long as I can put out of my mind what has been written about the National part of the National Pastime, I feel included in a running dialogue that started back when I asked my father to explain the box scores to me.
If going to eighty-one baseball games a year would offer me a glimpse of Roth’s aesthetic and mythic inclusion, I would reroute my paychecks to the Red Sox Season Ticket Office. Conversely, if I fully believed?again in the Sociologist’s terms?that the spectacle of the game only served to put a false shine on a rotten apple, I would never step foot in a ballpark again. Perhaps, the curse of the fan that identifies Ichiro as “my guy,” is that he can only recognize the promise and the betrayal of baseball in the way that one picks up a song through a wall: missing out on the immediacy and the volume, but recognizing the resonance. But he keeps trying. This season, I will watch the game for the stats, the umpire-specific strike zones, the infield shifts, the pitching changes and the numbers on the scoreboard. But, when I hear the occasional comment in the stands that I might reflexively place upon myself, my intellect will begin to pull apart baseball’s patriotic metaphor and expose its dead areas. But thankfully, the process is cyclic, because whenever an Asian player is met with applause, or when I see a young white or Hispanic or African American kid in a Shin-Soo Choo or Matsuzaka or Matsui t-shirt, the flood of inclusive, metaphoric language will seal the gaps shut and I will once again be awash in halfway hopeful reverence.