Blue Rider/Penguin, 2012
I agonized all spring 2001 about whether to get cable TV. I didn’t want my then eight-year-old daughter, Natalie, to get hooked on the Cartoon Network, but I wanted to watch the Mariners, who were off to a brilliant start—not just winning the overwhelming majority of their games but playing a new (for them), beautiful brand of baseball: sacrifice bunts rather than three-run home runs. I went so far as to call the cable company, get estimates for packages, and two times scheduled appointments for installation, only to cancel both times.
A week and a half into the season, I was listening to the A’s-Mariners game on the radio; after a few innings, I couldn’t stand it any longer and, though at the time I didn’t drink (complicated story), I went around the corner to a sports bar. Oakland’s Terrence Long was on first base. The next batter singled to right field, and when Long tried to run from first to third (a relatively routine maneuver), Ichiro Suzuki—the first Japanese position player in the major leagues and who, like Madonna or Cher or Pelé, went only by his first game—threw the ball on a low line drive from medium-deep right field all the way to the third baseman, who easily tagged Long out.
The bar erupted, the announcer went berserk, I felt that weird tingle down my spine I get about twice a decade, and for the next twenty-four hours the only thing anyone could talk about was “The Throw.”
“The ball came out of a cannon: it was quick and powerful.”
“It was like Ichiro threw a coin to third base.”
“It was like something out of Star Wars.”
Even Terrence Long said, “It was going to take a perfect throw to get me, and it was.”
Asked to explain, Ichiro said, “The ball was hit right to me. Why did he run when I was going to throw him out?”
Cable was installed by the end of the week.
Day after day a similar scenario would play out. Ichiro would perform some Herculean feat on the field—an amazing throw or catch or steal or hit—and then afterward, asked about it, he’d say something that was . . . surprising. He’d dismiss it or empty out the praise or give credit elsewhere. I couldn’t wait to get up every morning and, while I ate my breakfast and made Natalie’s lunch (and while she watched the Cartoon Network), read what Ichiro said today about what he’d done last night. He never boasted in the way I was accustomed to athletes doing, or if he did, he seemed to do so in a way that was fresh and funny in its uncluttered assertion of neutral fact.
In 2001, Ichiro was the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year, although in the ALCS vs. the Yankees, he was only 4-for-18 with a double and three runs scored, and the Mariners lost in five games. From 2001 through 2010, he had ten straight seasons of 200-plus hits, including a record 262 in 2004, won ten straight Gold Gloves, and was named to ten straight All-Star teams. Over that time, the Mariners went from perennial contenders to a team that rarely reached .500; 2001 is still Ichiro’s lone playoff season. He was wasting his skills playing for a bad team.
In 2009, apparently reinvigorated by Ken Griffey Jr.’s return to Seattle, Ichiro hit .352. He hit a two-run, first-pitch, walk-off home run in Seattle against Mariano Rivera in September. While the M’s were thrilled to win 85 games (teammates carried Ichiro and Griffey around the field after the season’s last game), the Yankees won the World Series.
In 2011 and 2012, Ichiro’s skills declined, his batting average slipping well below .300, and Mariners fans, frustrated by nearly a decade of losing, took it out on him. Seattle sports talk shows and websites filled with talk about whether Ichiro was worth keeping around, why he was so selfish (occasionally bunting with runners on and two outs), why he kept using a translator to talk to the media, why he was still batting leadoff despite a very low on-base percentage (he almost never walks). Teammates who were not his equal as players continued to speak off the record about Ichiro being withdrawn and self-absorbed in the clubhouse. The teams that matched up in the 1995, 2000, and 2001 playoffs had taken separate paths—the Yankees continuing their regular playoff appearances while Mariners fans got used to losing again.
In early July 2012, Ichiro requested a trade. On July 23, he was dealt to the Yankees for two minor-league prospects; the Mariners agreed to keep paying the majority of his salary. The Yankees’ conditions for Ichiro, 38, to join the team reflected that he’s no longer a star: he’d have to play different positions, hit in the bottom third of the lineup, and would not play regularly against left-handed pitching.
Since the Yankees were playing the Mariners in Seattle, Ichiro simply walked down the hallway to the visitors’ clubhouse and put on a Yankees jersey, which looked so wrong on him it was right. Ichiro is the anti-Matsui, the un-Yankee, most of whose stars are clean-cut, pleasant, old-school, bromide-bound, “class acts” with public personae so bland and all-encompassing that nothing remotely real ever penetrates or escapes the heat shields they’ve erected. Ichiro—addicted to shocking himself awake—never belonged in a Yankee uniform, so of course here is: a Yankee. He said of being in the Yankees’ clubhouse, “It’s an atmosphere I love to be around.” And (characteristically, saying exactly what he was thinking, rather than resorting to officialese), “I went from a team that’s had the most losses to a team having the most wins, so it’s been hard to maintain my excitement in that regard.”
In his first series as a Yankee—against the Mariners—Ichiro went 3-for-12 with a double, but scored no runs. In his second game, two Mariners went from first to third on singles hit to Ichiro, who was hit by star pitcher and longtime teammate Felix Hernandez in the seventh inning of a 4–2 Yankee loss. Afterwards, Felix claimed, “Not on purpose. Not on purpose.” Uh huh.
So why reprint this book, slightly revised and updated, eleven years after its initial publication just after the 2001 All-Star game? When I interviewed Ichiro for a New York Times Magazine profile (published the weekend after 9/11), I realized his verbal dexterity is an exact analogue of his mastery of the craft of baseball. Demurral; denial; deflection; self-confidence; go figure it out yourself; generosity; stay in the moment—the full repertoire of Ichiro batting techniques. He possesses the ability to X-ray both his interviewer and the opposition, analyze the relevant data, and use it to exploit gaps in the defense. He’s not just a slick-fielding singles hitter at the end of a Hall of Fame career. He sees more accurately than anyone I’ve ever encountered what’s in front of him, and the Ichiroisms collected here embody this. Yankee fans will find in Ichiro a player of astonishing attentiveness.
“Baseball Is Just Baseball is an ethereal joy unto itself.”–James Norton, Flak Magazine
“This book is deliciously wonderful. It looks nice, it feels nice, and it is filled with nice things.”–Powells.com
“There’s a scene in Downtown 81, wherein a hooker asks Jean-Michel Basquiat if he’d ‘like to go out.’ Basquiat replies, ‘I’m already out.’…If, like me, you [find this remark] funny and clever, then you’ll probably dig Shields’s little book.”–Mike Seely, Tablet
“Shields has located a charming narrative inside the roar of Ichiro Mania.”–James Martin, FFWD Magazine
“Through his introduction and quote selection, Shields turns Ichiro’s comments into Eastern wisdom, revealing a person who values Zen qualities such as simplicity and harmony and who revels in challenge, not achievement.” —ESPN.com Insider
“David Shields’s. . . . sense of postmodern irony is so advanced that I cannot be sure whether or not he is serious.” –Robert Lipsyte, The New York Times