Billboards in New York City touted his valiant arrival. Buzzing baseball elite charged that he would revolutionize the Mets. Everyday fans scurried to find a suitable nickname for their new best player they’d never heard of.
It was the Spring of 2004 and if you asked me to speak some Japanese, even I probably would’ve said: Matsui-san. Kazuo Matsui-san.
Because I, too, joined the hype.
But why? Why was the baseball world so enamored with an import player whom no one knew anything about? Why did we allow his persona to be so pumped up with pomp, such expectation, sight unseen?
Indeed, Ichiro Suzuki changed the landscape of Major League Baseball — allowing for the mysteriously effective small-ball game to reinject itself into the big boppin’ steroidfest it had become. His mannerisms, his character, his magnetism — on and off the field — were a throwback to the baseball heroes of old. Marveled by his talent, we the US American public accepted and celebrated Ichiro for resurrecting respect in a league where little remained.
So I get it. I understand why we started to get excited about the Japanese baseball contention.
But, the fact is: for every Ichiro Suzuki there’s a Kosuke Fukudome, a So Taguchi, or worse, a Kaz Matsui. For every Hideo Nomo, a Kei Igawa, Hideki Irabu, Daisuke Matsuzaka.
And while it makes a good headline that the A’s and Twins are going out and bidding top dollar for the rights — yes, just the rights — to negotiate with Hisashi Iwakuma and Tsuyoshi Nishioka respectively, I still can’t help but feel sorry for the failure both are being set up for in the future.
American, Dominican, Venezuelan, Canadian, Japanese… there’s only one Ichiro.
And as proved by Kazuo Matsui’s silent saunter back home this offseason, expecting anything but is a guarantee for disappointment.
Hate me. Whatevs. Just don’t hate me ‘cuz I’m right.
Baseball, Apple Pie & Lobster
While still behind the modern US American game in terms of global appeal, Japanese baseball does have a special place in the universe of our national pastime. Indeed it has evolved much beyond the infant and fundamentally challenged Chinese game and the linguistically worldly fella in me likes to think that even Japanese basebrawls tend to be a bit more aggressive than their Korean counterparts’ elusive yet intriguing pitcher’s mound chicken dance routine. Still, there is more to it than that.
During my first year in China, I had a Japanese roommate named Hayashi Nobuhide. Nobby — as we white devils called him because, well, it was easier to pronounce — was a rabid baseball fan. In fact, our friendship, which was predestined to be rocky due to 60 years of bad history, was solidified by our matched passion for the game.
Some of my fondest memories revolve around us getting up at 5am to watch the 1999 World Series during which he vehemently professed his equally tired hatred of the New York Yankees — for they were, to Nobby and his Japanese brethren, holistically representative of “all that’s bad with America” (his words, not mine, though most probably true, especially when considering the likes of Roger Clemens, Chuck Knoblauch and Tony Tarasco).
And that year, Nobby cheered on the Atlanta Braves just like any other rabid Japanese nationalist: while wearing a Seattle Mariners cap.
Ichiro! Ichiro! Ichiro!
“But what about Hideki Irabu?” I asked.
“**** that traitor! Go Ichiro!” he replied.
“But Ichiro’s not playing.”
“He should be! ICHIRO!!!”
To hear Nobby tell it, Ichiro Suzuki was more popular, more influential, more inspiring than Jesus Christ himself (not to mention having a better stylist). Everything about Ichiro, from his odd pregame warmups to his ritualized on-deck routine to his classic power pose at the plate was unequivocally all-things Japanese: systematic, graceful and proud.
Consider the fact that this undying allegiance came during the height of the steroid era, and I gotta admit, Nobby had a damn good point:
Sensationalized as the above may be, the truth remains: Ichiro is powerful.
And now, that power has multiplied. The Japanese gifts continue to grace diamonds all across US America. From Ichiro Suzuki to Takashi Saito to
Kaz Matsui Kosuke Fukudome Hiroki Kuroda, the game has plenty of room for Japanese imports.
If we’re lucky, maybe someday we can even borrow the Hiroshima Toyo mascot; ‘cuz nothin’ says powerhouse baseball like a wet, smelly Carp.
Don’t hate me ‘cuz I’m right.