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When in doubt, keep running

by Thomas Dillon

My buddy grinds his teeth and says, “You know what irks about this country?”

And so I summon all the usual suspects . . .

The insular mindset? The high cost of living? The crowded trains? The summer heat?

“No,” he hisses. “It’s in baseball when guys try to slide into first base. It drives me nuts.”

I lean back. “You’re kidding?”

“No. Every time I see it, I scream.”

“Partisan politics, the consumption tax, junior high bullying — none of that bothers you? Instead you’re upset about baseball?”

He grips his coffee cup. “You’re damn right!”

“But it’s not even baseball season! It’s New Year’s!”

He then reminds me that — in Japan — it’s always baseball season. Which gives his anger no chance to subside.

The setting:

In baseball, runners always slide into base when they advance on a close play. They do this to avoid being tagged with the ball, which would render them “out.” But no such tag is needed at first and, by baseball rules, runners are allowed overrun that bag.

Yet, some players still slide into first. Not to avoid a tag, but rather because they insist a body flying forward at full speed is faster than one running.

“Which is the biggest bunch of hooey since the flat earth theory. Of course running is faster. It’s like . . . like . . .”

I help: “Like . . . ‘duuh?’ ”

“Yeah. Exactly. Like five-star super duuh.”

He goes on: “You see it in the States too. Sometimes. But here it’s far more prevalent. Especially in high school baseball, but also in the pros. In either case, if it’s a critical juncture of a close game or the final out, the runner often throws himself at first base.”

Isn’t this, I tell him, one of those impossible riddles? Like, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or whether to dunk or not dunk your Oreo?

“No! It’s common sense. Fortified by physics. When you stop running, you lose propulsion and meet air resistance. Then as soon as you land, you encounter friction. It’s like jamming on the brakes. Slower? Absolutely. Stupid? Well, only if your intent is to win.”

“Think of track and field,” he says. “Olympic sprinters. Sure, to slide ahead would mean to scar themselves on the track. But you think they wouldn’t do that? In a major race? To win a gold medal? And reap endorsements? Of course they would! Yet, they don’t. Not one of them. Why? Because it is slower, that’s why.”

I tell him he needs to watch less baseball.

“You don’t get it, do you? If it’s not a question of speed, then what it is? It’s honor, that’s what. Players here slide into first base to show their fighting spirit. To announce that, even though they know they are doomed to lose, they are still giving their all.”

I tell him he needs to watch a lot less baseball.

“It’s that explosive cloud of dust, that uniform and face smeared with dirt, that animal roar of effort. All to show that — even in vain, or especially in vain — the player is giving his utmost.”

He raises a finger. “What is more, Japanese enjoy this. It’s that ‘nobility of failure’ about which Ivan Morris once wrote. The same thinking behind the kamikaze. There can be glory in defeat as long as you go down clawing tooth and nail. To Japanese, this idea somehow symbolizes the futility of life and such scenes of sheer effort, in the face of absolute failure, can bring tears to the eye.”

“But not your eye.”

“No.”

“Because?”

“The object is to win. To adopt a strategy that goes the other way — one that ensures failure — just to show off your effort is ridiculous. If you really wish to display your effort, then you should be running full speed. That’s the way to help your team; to slide into first only nails down your defeat. With a hammer blow.”

“And this drives you nuts?” I ask. Although at this point, I suspect it is not much of drive, more like a bunny hop.

“You bet it does.”

“But isn’t it just a game?”

He shakes his head. “No, it’s a mindset. Fans believe this sliding is good. Coaches coach it. It’s the selection of style over substance that bothers me. It’s accepted despite being counterproductive. Isn’t that Japan in a nutshell? Form too often takes precedence over results.”

I argue that — maybe, just maybe — a slide with perfect timing, one that spears the bag with no loss of nanoseconds due to friction, might beat a player running fast.

“Oh. You mean the Superman Slide. Yeah, maybe. But baseball is played by humans. And with humans, sliding into first base is just wrong.”

I tell him the call of “Y’er out!” is not the worst thing in the world.

“What is then?” he asks.

I think and tell him . . . “Bunting the runner along when you’re three runs down.”

“Hah! You watch too much baseball!”

Yeah. I know. And it’s not even the season.