Thinking man’s game

When Ichiro Suzuki debuted in the majors in 2001, he was a joy to watch, a speedy highly-skilled, athletic antithesis to the performance-enhancing drug revolution, a player who bucked the trend and succeeded despite an aversion to honing his home-run hitting skill.

At his retirement press conference in the early morning hours of March 22 in Tokyo, Suzuki lamented American Baseball’s newest thing, an obsession with launch angle that has fueled home run and strikeout rates.

“The baseball played in America in 2019 has completely changed since I arrived in 2001,” he said. “It’s moving toward a game where you can now get by without using your head. I wonder how this might change. I don’t see this trend stopping over the next five years, or 10 years or for the forseeable future. Fundamentals mean nothing. Perhaps saying that might cause trouble. (Saying) that looks like it definitely will be a problem.”

“On a fundamental level, baseball is a game that requires thinking. That it’s losing that makes me sick. America is baseball’s birthplace, and I believer that a lot of people have a sense of urgency over what the game is becoming. So I think there is no need for Japan’s game to follow America’s. The Japanese game should be a thinking, interesting brand of ball. As long as this trend in America does not stop, I hope Japanese ball doesn’t change and that we remember to cherish it.”

This is hardly an unusual opinion from someone steeped in the Japanese game and the thread of Japan’s cultural narcicism that claims Japanese have unique attributes. Ask any Japanese baseball person about what defines major league baseball, they will say, “speed and power,” and if they don’t I’ll give you a dollar.

Japanese baseball, they’ll tell you, is “komakai” – detailed. Saying major leaguers have “power and speed” is at best a left-handed compliment, like saying black players are “natural athletes.” The implication is that American players don’t have to hone their craft the way less genetically blessed Japanese players do. In other words, our players work to get good, theirs are just bigger.

It perfectly suits an ideology that dictates every amateur game be treated as a war in itself. No amount of practice is too much, no concern for your best pitcher’s arm too great to prevent him from pitching when not doing so would increase the chances of losing.

While Ichiro is considered a paragon of Japan’s small game of “kowazara” or subtle techniques, and is a master of fundamentals, those things – as much as yakyu apologists would have you believe – are not the same as “thinking baseball.”

Indeed, Japanese amateur baseball activists will tell you that “thinking” is an endangerd concept in the Japanese game, because children are being taught not to think but to execute orders in order to minimize the risk of errors that could cost games.

Ryunosuke Seto, the chief executive of the Sakai Big Boys sports club in Osaka, said Japanese baseball programs kids to play according to fixed routines, instead of teaching them to adapt.

“Kids need learn to build their own software, but if you just give them the answers, they don’t learn to solve problems. When they get older, they can’t figure things out,” Seno said.

While Suzuki is an advocate of cultivating various different skills that Japanese doctrine says can be used to exploit opponents’ weaknesses, and being precise in execution, he was never one to play by the unwritten rules. While his slash-hitting and speed game is not far from Japan’s ideal, he succeeded with an unorthodox batting style that flouted convention.

As a left-handed hitter with speed, he would have been expected to not try and drive the ball, but to hit grounders to the left side of the infield and hope to beat them out, because that is what fast left-handed hitters are trained to do in Japan.

Smart, quick-thinking players like Ichiro are a huge advantage on the field. Equating Japanese baseball with quick thinking because of Ichiro, however, would be a mistake.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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