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Robert Whiting

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'The Meaning of Ichiro': Sayonara, baseball! Author hits home run

by David Takami (Apr 4, 2004)

In the post-game euphoria of the Seattle Mariners' 2001 Opening Day win over the Oakland A's, manager Lou Piniella gave Ichiro Suzuki a big wet kiss - a gesture that both startled and disgusted the normally unflappable Japanese superstar, who was making his major-league debut.

"It's something that would make most Japanese men want to throw up," he told a Japanese TV crew.

This is but one of the many gems in Robert Whiting's engaging new book that spotlights the recent success of Ichiro and other Japanese baseball players in the U.S., and the intriguing variations in how the two nations play the game. The contrasting approaches reveal as much about U.S.-Japan cultural differences as any dissertation on international relations. "The Meaning of Ichiro" could not have been written by a more qualified observer: Whiting has lived in Japan for the past four decades and has authored two well-received books on the intricacies and nuances of the Japanese game.

Introduced in Japan in the 1870s, baseball quickly took hold and developed. In one of the most celebrated moments in Japanese baseball history, in 1934, a young fastball pitcher named Eiji Sawamura struck out in succession Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and two other members of a touring major-league all-star team.

Japan's first professional league was founded in 1936. Today the game is played in Japan at every level, but there is no bigger sporting spectacle than the phenomenally popular national high-school baseball championship held annually in Osaka's Koshien Stadium.

Though American influence has been steady - hundreds of American major leaguers have played in the Japanese professional leagues - baseball in Japan has retained its unique cultural flavor. Spring training begins in the dead of winter and more closely resembles military boot camp than athletic endeavor. Japanese managers routinely overwork pitchers, resulting in injuries and shortened careers. Maddening to Americans, games often end in ties.

Whiting enriches his considerable knowledge of Japanese baseball with deft vignettes of American ballplayers in Japan. Also fascinating are the experiences of Ichiro and other Japanese in the U.S.

With the recent influx of these superb players, it's easy to forget that before Hideo Nomo became a Los Angeles Dodger in 1995, no Japanese played in the major leagues for nearly 30 years. After the pioneering Masanori Murakami pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and 1965, leaders of the American and Japanese pro leagues stayed away from each other's star players.

The outspoken Nomo (he of the corkscrew pitching delivery) reopened the door in 1995, but until the arrival of Ichiro, Japanese position players were deemed to play an inferior game to Americans, a couple of notches below the major leagues. Ichiro shot down all such arguments with a spectacular rookie season, when he won the American League batting title and MVP award.

Ichiro's upbringing is the stuff of legend. Shades of Tiger Woods, his father gave him a pricey leather baseball glove when he was 3. At 7, he joined the local Little League, practicing five hours a day after school. By the time he reached junior high school, he was practicing 360 days a year. In high school, the training paid off as he hit for a stunning .502 average with good power.

Mariner fans will enjoy the sections on Ichiro teammates Kazuhiro Sasaki and Shigetoshi Hasegawa. Also pleasurable are profiles of Hideki Matsui and Hideki Irabu, and Japanese players' disdain for the quaint American baseball customs of chewing tobacco and playing practical jokes.

Whiting's effort is assured and illuminating, holding delight for both the casual and serious baseball fan. He builds to the conclusion that both countries stand to benefit from the migration of Japanese players to America.

Despite fears that the Japanese professional leagues would suffer, baseball in Japan is as popular as ever, and the Japanese people feel a sense of pride and confidence from their countrymen's success overseas. In the United States, the game is being invigorated with players who have been "superbly coached, highly skilled in all the fundamentals and with a better appreciation of the word 'preparation,' than their counterparts in the U.S."

What better way to usher in the new season than with fresh insights and perspectives on the grand old game.

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