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More than a name in the game

by Jeff Kingston

THE MEANING OF ICHIRO: The New Wave From Japan and the Transformation of Our National Pastime, by Robert Whiting. New York: Warner Books, 2004, 318 pp., $25.95 (cloth).

“The Meaning of Ichiro” is gathering deserved acclaim as a great book on baseball, but it would be a pity if it was not also appreciated as an incisive and thoughtful examination of Japanese society, U.S.-Japan bilateral relations and globalization. With this dazzling display, author Robert Whiting (“You Gotta Have Wa” and “Tokyo Underworld”) is a first ballot shoo-in as a Hall of Famer among Japanologists. Again, he does for Japanese baseball what David Halberstam (“Breaks of the Game”) did for U.S. basketball and Sebastian Moffett (“Japanese Rules”) did for Japanese soccer, elevating sports writing to another plane.

Whiting has an engaging style, packing his narrative with insights and information while making the story shimmer with anecdotes, local color and lively quotes. He takes us out of the stadium to probe the ways that transformation in the world of baseball is a microcosm of larger social trends and pathologies. As in his previous “baseball books,” Whiting uses the sport as a way of getting under the skin of contemporary realties and conveying the distilled insights gained from over three decades as a participating observer.

So what is the meaning of Ichiro? According to Whiting, Suzuki Ichiro’s successful transition to the majors assuaged the national inferiority complex, demonstrating that a man of slight stature could be a full-fledged star, equal to the best in the game. Ichiro-mania swept Japan, and many Japanese agreed with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s statement that “Ichiro makes me proud to be Japanese.” People were enchanted by a “Japanese hero who was idolized by Americans themselves.” Many fans must have found it puzzling that, despite his assault on the single season hit record, “he received almost uniformly positive treatment by American fans and media,” inciting none of the xenophobic reactions that “American sluggers in [Japan] had experienced when chasing titles or attempting to break Japanese records.”

On the other side of the Pacific, U.S. players, managers and fans watched his bat control, speed and cannonlike throwing arm in awe. On his opening day debut he laid down “a perfect drag-bunt single in the ninth inning that left the Oakland infield searching for their athletic supporters.”

In an era of steroid-pumped long-ball, Ichiro was a throwback to an era of finesse, fundamentals and hustle. Little Leaguers copy his unorthodox batting style; teammates have learned to slash the ball to the opposite field; and at least one manager and some players are adopting a watered-down version of his grueling practice regimen.

Who is Ichiro? Readers learn about his father’s single-minded devotion to developing his talents, including afternoon drills and long nightly sessions with specially modified batting machines. Oddly, he only achieved superstar status among the Japanese after excelling in the United States despite several batting titles and Golden Glove awards. The media dwell on his aloof manner, but with reporters hounding him, trying to sniff out scandals and even offering $1 million for a frontal nude (apparently he turned down a teammate’s offer to snap one and split the reward!), it is not surprising that he is not cooperative. We do learn about Ichiro’s taste for bondage involving bathrobe sashes and that his favorite English expression is: “Kansas City in August was as ‘hot as two rats f***ing inside a sock.’ “

Ichiro, Hideo Nomo, Kazuo Matsui, Hideki Irabu and all of the other players who appear in these pages have been part of bringing people from the U.S. and Japan closer, strengthening some of the ties that bind. Yet a chasm remains, as players in Japan are treated like chattel by baseball owners who manage their teams as if they were feudal lords.

Tsuneo Watanabe, president of the Yomiuri Giants, is portrayed as a curmudgeonly “blustering alpha male who did everything but urinate on the floor to make his mark.” He has fought to restrict free agency and the role of player agents in his efforts to ensure that players know their place in the corporate hierarchy. This rigid system of tight control, endless practices and self-sacrifice for the team is both a strength and weakness of the Japanese game. Apparently, as long as Watanabe has his way, Japanese players can only dream of being treated with respect as responsible professionals. As a result, the best will yearn for the greener fields in the U.S.

Godzilla, as Hideki Matsui is known, is the highest-profile defector from Japan. As he came from the status-conscious Giants, it was only proper that he went to the Yankees. He has enjoyed an unusually good rapport with the media in both countries. Whiting writes: “As the first Japanese to go bicep to bicep with the andro-enhanced musclemen who had come to dominate North American baseball, it was hoped that he could single-handedly erase the image of Japanese as practitioners of ‘small-ball.’ ” He may have fallen short of this goal, but he did put up decent numbers while maintaining humility and dignity in a pressure-cooker setting.

“The Meaning of Ichiro” is like having box seats in the World Series — memorable and lots of fun. Crack a beer, sit back and enjoy.