The Meaning of Ichiro: The New Wave from Japan and the Transformation of Our National Pastimeby Robert Whiting
Matsui... Nomo... Sasaki... Ichiro... the so-called American "National Pastime" has developed a decidedly Japanese flair. Indeed, in this year's All-Star game, two of the starting American League outfielders were from Japan. And for the third straight year, Ichiro - the fleet-footed Seattle Mariner - received more votes for the All-Star game than any other player in the game today. Some 15 years ago, in the bestseller "You Gotta Have Wa," Robert Whiting examined how former American major league ballplayers tried to cope with a different culture while playing pro ball in Japan. Now, Whiting reverses his field and reveals how select Japanese stars have come across the Pacific to play in the big leagues. Not only have they had to deal with the American way of life, but they have individually changed the game in dramatic fashion.
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The Meaning of IchiroThe New Wave from Japan and the Transformation of Our National Pastime
By Robert Whiting
Warner BooksCopyright © 2004 Robert Whiting
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE EDUCATION OF ICHIRO
A person does not live alone. Our lives are not our own. They are a gift from heaven. Just like our physical bodies. We are created and nurtured by our parents, by all mankind, by the wind and the rain, by the food we eat and countless other things that have supported our hearts, soul, spirit. So, in a sense, they are not really our bodies. We live because we are allowed to live. I taught this to my son Ichiro again and again. NOBUYUKI SUZUKI
HE HAD PLAYED BASEBALL ALL HIS LIFE. HE HAD APPROACHED the sport with a passion and conviction that few of his contemporaries could match. For that, he had his father, a former high school pitcher, to thank. When he was three years old, his father had given him his first baseball glove and initiated daily games of catch. Made of shiny red leather, it was the most expensive type available at sporting good counters in and around Toyoyama, a sparsely populated suburb of industrial, smog-bound Nagoya, where the Suzuki family lived. The boy's mother had strenuously objected that at half a month's wages, it was far too costly a toy for a small child, but the father had been resolute.
"It's not a toy," he had said. "It's a tool that will teach him the value of things."
Nobuyuki Suzuki was a practicing Buddhist who believed that all inanimate things-rocks, trees, fish, baseball gloves-were animated-with spirit, that they were created by a higher force and deserved to be treated with respect and gratitude. He demanded that his son Ichiro follow their daily games of catch in the back yard with a ritualistic cleaning and oiling of the glove (a habit that the son continued to follow religiously for the next three decades).
At age seven, the boy, Ichiro, had joined a local youth baseball team, which played on weekends; shortly after that, he asked his father to teach him the proper way to play the game.
The father in turn asked his son if he could commit himself to practice every day, to stick without deviation to the endeavor, all the way to the end. Could he promise? The answer was yes.
"Good, then," said the father. "We have a deal. Make sure you keep your end of it."
Thus did practice-and what would prove to be Nobuyuki's life-long mission-begin in earnest. At 3:30 every afternoon, the father would excuse himself from the small family-owned electrical parts factory he managed and join his son at a neighborhood Little League ballpark, an island of manicured grass and raked earth set amongst suburban rice fields and newly built residential houses, bringing with him bats, gloves and a suitcase filled with hard rubber balls. The daily routine included some jogging and a light game of catch to start, then the boy would throw 50 pitches, hit 200 balls tossed to him by his father, and finally finish up with infield and outfield defensive fungo drills of 50 balls each. The father, a slightly built man who as an amateur ballplayer had been distinguished more by his desire than real ability, taught his naturally right-handed son to swing from the left side, which he explained would give him an extra two or three steps' advantage on the sprint to first base. He also taught him to swing so that he would always be in a position to run.
On the way home, around seven o'clock, they would stop at a shop for ice cream, then after dinner and homework, father and son would set out once more, this time to a nearby batting center, located in the shadow of the city's international airport and named, fittingly enough, "Airport Batting Center." The boy would take 250 to 300 swings against a pitching machine. He would assume his stance, imitating the star batters he saw on television like Yasushi Tao, the smooth-swinging line-drive-hitting outfielder of the Chunichi Dragons-the thwack of bat against ball competing with the roar of the passenger jets taking off and landing down the road. The father would stand behind the net, monitoring his son's form, scolding him if he swung at a ball that was outside of an imagined strike zone. The batting center closed at 11 P.M. and quite often the Suzuki team was still there when it did. Then, before bed, the father would massage the soles of his son's feet, in the belief that the foot with all its nerve endings was the key to a sound body. "If the feet are healthy, you are healthy," he liked to say.
This routine went on every day for several years, regardless of the heat or cold, rain or snow. During this time, Nobuyuki Suzuki became known in the neighborhood simply as san-ji-han toko (the 3:30 man) for his compulsive habit of leaving work early to play baseball with his son.
Ichiro, whose name meant "most cheerful boy," was not always so cheerful about practicing, especially during the harsh winter days of central Japan, when his fingers grew so numb from the frigid air that he could not button his shirt.
Once, denied permission to leave practice early to play with his friends, he sat down in the middle of the field in protest and refused to budge. The father angrily began to throw balls at his son, but the boy's reflexes were so fast that he would move his body an inch to the left or right and the ball would whiz harmlessly by, or else a hand would shoot up, like the automatic flag on a Nagoya taxi meter, and snare a bullet headed for the bridge of his nose.
"That kid of mine," Nobuyuki would later write. "He was really stubborn, willful. Sometimes I got so mad at him. But it was also times like that that I knew he was something special. He had a great natural talent."
That Ichiro was preternaturally talented became ever more apparent as he grew. In the sixth grade, as a rail-thin child who lacked power and strength, he still had better baseball skills than most high school players. He hit the pitching machines so well at the Airport Batting Center, which he now frequented with his father as often as four times a day, that Nobuyuki asked the superintendent there to increase the speed. At first, when Ichiro was in the third grade, the speed was set at 65 miles an hour, which he handled easily, be it fastball, curve ball or shooto (a kind of screwball), the different pitches which the machine could be set to throw. Within three years, he was hitting balls at 75 miles per hour, but then even that became too easy, so the manager at the batting center jerry-rigged a machine for his special client with a spring attachment that upped the speed to 80 miles per hour. That, he said, was the absolute limit. But in time the boy complained it still wasn't fast enough. Eventually, when Ichiro turned 15, the superintendent would physically move the machine itself several feet closer to the batter's box, creating, in effect, a 93-mile-an-hour pitch (the equivalent of an upper limit fastball in Japan's professional leagues at the time). His most frequent customer easily mastered even this.
Throughout all the batting center sessions, Ichiro's father continued to stand behind home plate, making sure his son only swung at strikes. This was not an inexpensive proposition. One set, or "game" as it was called, cost the rough equivalent of a dollar for 25 pitches, and as the machine was somewhat erratic, pitches not infrequently missed the mark. Although Nobuyuki could not be described as a wealthy man, he uncomplainingly bore the cost.
Nobuyuki also devised what he called a "life or death" drill, in which he stood just six feet away from his son and delivered pitches that Ichiro was required to swat to the left or right sides of the diamond in order to avoid hitting his father. It was a perilous exercise, because from the fifth grade they had begun using a much harder professional-league-approved ball-hard enough to cause concussions and broken bones if directed with enough force at the human body.
The father believed the risk was necessary to teach his son bat control.
In addition, the father, who had been an avid golfer until he decided to devote all his free hours to his son's baseball training, also tried to incorporate the basic elements of a golf swing into Ichiro's batting form, the idea being to shift weight from one foot to the other while completing the swing, to get the entire body fully behind the motion. The result was the eventual development of a style of hitting in which Ichiro swept his front foot in the air pendulum style as he went into his swing. It was a batting form that Ichiro kept all throughout his Japan career, one in which he also made it look as though he was running before he had even finished his swing.
Through it all, the father tried to inculcate in his son his philosophy of life, the four principles of which were doryoku, konjo, nintai, and chowa (effort, fighting spirit, patience and harmony). Likened by some to the ethos of the bushi or samurai, dating back to the days of the medieval warrior, to Nobuyuki, they were merely the guiding principles that he had learned from his parents. By all accounts, Ichiro had little difficulty in assimilating them. As a child, he was self-composed and betrayed little emotion. Unlike others on his Little League team, he did not jump up and down after a big play. Instead, he acted as if hitting a home run or winning a game in the ninth inning was the most natural thing in the world. He had the word shuchu or "concentration" ink-brushed on his glove. It was a state of mind he endlessly sought to maintain.
By the time Ichiro was 12, he had his heart set on a professional career, as an excerpt from a sixth-grade essay he composed made clear: My dream when I grow up is to be a first-class professional baseball player.... I have the confidence to do the necessary practice to reach that goal. I started practicing from age three. From the age of nine I have practiced baseball 360 out of 365 days a year and I practice hard. I only had five to six hours (in a year) to play with my friends. That's how much I practiced. So I think I can surely become a pro. I will play in junior high and high school. When I graduate I will enter the pros. My dream is to join the Seibu Lions or the Chunichi Dragons. My goal is a contract signing bonus of 100 million yen.
According to published reports, he was, by this time, already practicing his autograph.
Years later, sportswriters reading Nobuyuki's published account of his sessions with Ichiro would find echoes of Kyojin no Hoshi, an enormously popular cartoon series that first appeared in the 1960s in manga or comic form and was later adapted for television. It told the story of a young boy's long and difficult climb to stardom with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, Japan's quintessential professional team. The protagonist learns the game under the tutelage of his father, an impoverished postwar laborer who takes his son to a practice field and subjects him to hours' worth of fierce training that leave him battered and bloodied and crying from pain.
"The only way to become a man and succeed in life," the father says at one point, "is to suffer and persevere." Through years of enduring such hardship, the boy grows into a sinewy young man and becomes a star pitcher for the mighty Kyojin (Giants), a left-handed smokethrower who can make a pitched baseball perform impossible gyrations. "Hoshi," the boy's name, was also a homonym for "star."
Kyojin no Hoshi was grounded in the harsh work ethic that Japan embraced as the nation clawed its way up from the ashes of war. It also informed the way the country approached the game of baseball in the postwar decades. Several sequels followed until changing generational attitudes began to result in a somewhat less rigorous approach to the art of cultivating young ballplayers.
Although Nobuyuki bristled at such comparisons-"Baseball was fun for both of us," he insisted-Ichiro found them rather close to the mark.
"It might have been fun for him," he said, "but for me it was a lot like Kyojin no Hoshi. It bordered on hazing and I suffered a lot. But I also couldn't say no to him. He was doing his utmost to help me." Meiden By the time Ichiro entered junior high school in 1975, Nobuyuki had become so convinced his son possessed the ability to make it as a professional, he went to see the coach of the school's baseball team with two requests:
"Do whatever you want with my son," he said, "but please don't change his batting form. He has worked a long time to perfect it." And then he added the kicker: "No matter how good Ichiro is, don't ever praise him. We have to make him spiritually strong."
With afternoon sessions now out of the question because of the year round practice routine school teams in Japan required, Nobuyuki shifted into a different kind of support mode. He continued to leave his factory at 3:30 every day, but now he went to observe his son's after-school practices. He would stand there behind the backstop, hands in his pockets, and watch silently as Ichiro and his teammates went through their paces. As long as his son was on the practice field, he would not sit down, because his son could not sit down. It was a kind of moral reinforcement. He would drive his son home in the family car after practice and when dinner had been eaten, he would take him to the batting center for their nightly two-hour session, often staying there until the place was closed down.
Then it was time for homework and Nobuyuki would always stay awake in case Ichiro had questions that needed to be answered. Neither father nor son ever went to bed before 2 A.M. during this period and never until Nobuyuki had capped the day off with the nightly foot massage.
A big problem was Ichiro's abnormally slender physique, especially since the boy was a starting pitcher as well as the team's cleanup hitter. He was a notoriously fussy eater. His dislike of vegetables was exceeded only by his fondness for Kobe filet steak and sashimi, two of the most expensive items on the menu in Japan. So Nobuyuki proposed a deal that would put a huge dent in his pocket. He offered to allow Ichiro to consume all the Kobe beef and raw tuna he wished as long as he ate a lot and drank abundant quantities of milk at the same time. Ichiro agreed, much to the reported displeasure of his mother, whose say in her second child's upbringing had been steadily diminished.
Ichiro led his junior high school team in pitching, hitting and fielding for three years running, at the conclusion of which he and his father were besieged by high school baseball scouts.
At this point, a major choice was to be made. In junior high school, Ichiro's marks were so impressive that teachers thought he might gain admission to Todai, Japan's top university, if he applied himself in his studies.
Excerpted from The Meaning of Ichiro by Robert Whiting Copyright © 2004 by Robert Whiting. Excerpted by permission.
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