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the meaning of ichiro

22 September 2004

Potential readers of The Meaning of Ichiro should not expect cerebrations on the cosmic significance of the Mariners' right fielder. Robert Whiting's interpretation of Ichiro boils down to the fact that he's a nice young man with a world-class ability to collect base hits. A nice young Japanese man, of course, and that's the big story. Never before Ichiro had an everyday player from Japan become a regular – much less a great star – in the American major leagues. And never before Ichiro had a Japanese player gathered as much money and fame while reaching stardom, anywhere.

The meaning of Ichiro is largely in his context. Whiting's book is a survey of Japanese baseball stars who have come to play at the highest level in the United States. The first, pitcher Masanori Murakami, arrived almost by accident in the mid-1960s, overlooked in some minor-league agreements between the San Francisco Giants and the Nankai Hawks. Murakami was successful (going 5-1 and saving nine games in parts of two seasons with San Francisco) – maybe too successful. For almost three decades, Japanese baseball owners closed off potential leaks of talent to the States.

And maybe American owners were not looking terribly hard to exploit those leaks. Stereotypes of Japanese players as unathletic and unassimilable were common. It took the tenacity of pitcher Hideo Nomo, who walked away from stardom in Japan into uncertain free agency in the U.S., to attract the attention of the American behemoth. After Nomo struck out eleven batters per game for the 1995 Dodgers, the gaze of Sauron George Steinbrenner turned inexorably to the East.

Even casual fans know the rest of the story: Hideki Irabu, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Ichiro, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, and at last the great Hideki Matsui, whose status as one of Japan's immortal sluggers – plus a couple of hundred RBIs for the 2003-04 Yankees – proved beyond doubt that the best Japanese ballplayers are as good as the best Americans, Dominicans, and Venezuelans.

Whiting, however, offers something new to American readers: the perspective from Japan, based on exhaustive research in Japanese sources. I first saw Ichiro play from a press box bursting at the seams with Japanese reporters, in Arlington, Texas in April 2001. The news on the field that day was of minor interest: Ichiro went 1-for-5, turncoat shortstop Alex Rodriguez went 0-for-2 against his former team, and the Rangers won 5-4. But after reading Whiting's book I understand for the first time that the real story of April 2001 was in the press box with me. Japanese sports changed forever in those few weeks, as Ichiro showed that he could play with anybody.

Nippon Professional Baseball is more popular than ever in its home country today, "a state of affairs," Whiting says, "some people actually attribute to the success of Japanese in MLB, which, perversely, has lent more credibility to the local game even though its top stars are no longer in the country" (270). But maybe the phenomenon isn't that perverse. I love to watch Michigan State men play basketball partly because a string of Spartans from Magic Johnson to Zach Randolph have won NBA stardom. Imagine how much crazier I'd be about my team if an entire dominant culture for decades before Magic's debut had told me they could never stack up.

Whiting, Robert. The Meaning of Ichiro: the new wave from Japan and the transformation of our national pastime. New York: Warner, 2004.