Saturday, August 28, 2010

Is Ichiro The New J.D. Salinger? by Arne Christensen

Toward the end of the 2009 season, as Ichiro neared new milestones in his career, Arne Christensen and David Shields talked about Ichiro's style, his personality, and his abilities as a ballplayer. In summer 2001, Shields compiled a book of Ichiro quotations, Baseball is Just Baseball, and also wrote a profile of Ichiro for the New York Times Magazine. Their exchange, which continued into this year, describes Shields' changed perspective on Ichiro eight years later, with his status as American superstar and future Hall of Famer firmly established. With Ichiro in his tenth season in Seattle, here's Shields and Christensen on Ichiro as pop icon, intensely focused performer, and deeply layered persona.

Arne: A little while ago, I did a keyword search for Ichiro and J.D. Salinger, and I found a quote from Ichiro in 2007: “I hate being touched by other people, so rather than being touched, I’d rather run away from them.”

Salinger, the recluse, was the guy you’d expect to have said this, not Ichiro the ballplayer. But it occurred to me that with both men, much of their appeal is their inaccessibility: each utters gnomic statements, either through the press or in his books, and has a hidden private life. But he’s not completely closed off: Ichiro waves to the bleacher fans at the start of each game; Salinger very occasionally met one of his fans. They both also seem extremely dedicated to their crafts.

David: I would never have thought of equating Ichiro and Salinger, but I think that’s a great connection, Arne. Look at how Ichiro ran away from his teammates when they wanted to mob him after his walk-off single against Chicago on September 17th, 2009. Ichiro literally ran away from them. Salinger, at age 90 or so, was more figuratively running away from fans. But for whatever reason both are constructed this way, and it seems obvious to me that their art and craft, their entire personality, depend upon this isolation.

Arne: At a game last August, I sat behind Ichiro, in the right field bleachers at Safeco, for the first time. I noticed how casual his glove wave to the crowd at the start of a game is: very unassuming, more like saying “hi” than an acknowledgement of adulation. It made me want to wave “hi” back, not start cheering, ranting, bowing, or booing him. Ichiro has a lot of devoted fans, but he’s a very quiet superstar.

David: Right, but I wouldn’t want to mistake his posture for humility. He’s unbelievably proud, somewhat vain, self-obsessed, selfish, etc. It’s more a cultural style than anything else. My friend David Xiao explained to me that in the East one expresses oneself by the degree to which one erases one’s personality, whereas in the West one expresses oneself by brandishing one’s personality. Ichiro’s cultural style is to express himself by a kind of self-erasure. He complicates this, though, in all sorts of ways, which I’ll talk about later.

Arne: Another thing you notice from the bleachers is that Ichiro’s continually stretching in right field: bending from the waist, flexing his arms, swiveling his body, adjusting his stirrup socks, etc. He doesn’t really fidget, though: his movements have a purpose.

David: To me, he’s very much a person who doesn’t want to waste his life or any moments in his life. Think of the hours other outfielders waste by just standing there. Ichiro is doing all sorts of stretches, in preparation for his next at-bat, next catch, throw, run, etc. I don’t know if this is still true, but he used to not watch TV, in order to preserve his eyesight. He’s very “American” in that way—very Ben Franklin, very utilitarian, hyper-practical, “useful.”

Arne: Also, he doesn’t ever seem to sweat: maybe I haven’t watched Ichiro closely enough, because he must sweat on muggy days in Texas or Kansas City, but he literally always looks cool. When he’s running, he reaches high speed very quickly, but he’s not pressing or straining, just cutting at the ground smoothly and cleanly, with no wasted effort.

David: This gives me a chance to tell my Kansas-City-in-summer story. Bob Costas asked him what his favorite American expression is, and he said, “Kansas City in August—hotter than two rats in a fucking wool sock.” Costas and the crew broke up, of course, and Ichiro delighted in shocking them. But then he took away the shock and returned to Polite Japanese Zen Artist by saying, “I have a very bad teammate,” e.g., Griffey or whoever told him the story. He seems to relish traipsing back and forth across the boundaries by which people attempt to know him and define him. I also like that he blew the joke. It should be “hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock.” Did he know the joke and clean it up for Costas, or did he get it slightly wrong?

Arne: There’ve been rumblings from time to time about Ichiro as a selfish player, who doesn’t go all out for balls, doesn’t try to fit in with his teammates, doesn’t really provide leadership. What’s your take on that issue?

David: I actually think it’s a fair criticism, don’t you? He’s a very rational person, highly calculating. And I think he figures what is the point of catching a single ball and breaking my leg and being out for six months? Whereas the American model is more Griffey: watch me go crashing into the wall and be out for half the year, but show you what a man I am. It’s very complicated and very interesting. I respect Ichiro’s approach, but I can see how it’s a complex fit between Ichiro and American athletes. Also, he’s hugely anti rah-rah, so he’s not going to get up there and shout, “Go, team.”

Arne: One of the things that comes across in your 2001 book on Ichiro is his ability to block out the white noise and concentrate on the ball. He very rarely looks or turns away from the field. And at one point in the game, with Ichiro in the on-deck circle, a foul ball came screaming maybe five feet over his head. Ichiro didn’t flinch.

David: That’s Ichiro, isn’t it? Somewhere in my forthcoming book Reality Hunger: a Manifesto, I talk about how Ichiro doesn’t just look the ball into his glove. He really, really, really looks the ball into his glove. It’s one of the most important things I’ve learned from him and tried to incorporate into my life and my work: this sense of being not just present but really, really, really present. Once, sitting in the right field bleachers, I saw a contingent of eight or so screaming Japanese girls, clearly dying for Ichiro to acknowledge them somehow, and he just never turned his body toward the stands. I love your story about the ball coming so near him but Ichiro not flinching. Laser vision.


Arne: Ichiro’s statistics have been very consistent for an entire decade: power, average, walks, fielding—they’ve all remained within a pretty narrow range. He doesn’t seem to be slowing down or playing differently than he was in 2001, or probably even 1994, his first full year in Japan. I suppose that comes from his dedication.

David: Sure, of course; that seems a huge part of his success: his stretching, his diet, his eye exercises, his batting practice, etc, etc. Ichiro’s so thin, you don’t expect him to be durable. But he trains so much, he disciplines his body so much, that there’s no spare fat, everything’s taut and supple, he doesn’t get muscle pulls, strains, etc. And have you ever watched him in batting practice? If he wants, he can hit ten balls in a row out.

Arne: I was looking at some of the old stories from 2001. When Ichiro had the coins thrown at him in Oakland, he said, “Something came out of the sky and hit me” and “I couldn’t tell if it was rain or money coming down” and he also said that once in Japan, “The gods threw an aluminum can at me.” Jay Buhner, the guy he was replacing, talked about counting up the change the fans threw at him, complained about having to dodge coins, and said, “Some fans just resent the idea some players make a lot of money."

David: I think that line may have been the one that convinced me I had to put together a book of quotations by and about Ichiro. It is just completely brilliant; it shows why Ichiro charms so many people who are turned off by other major leaguers. Ichiro was disarming, irreverent, whimsical, whereas Buhner was literal, obvious.

My daughter is now 16 and can take care of herself just fine, thank you, but when she was little, especially perhaps since she’s an “only child,” she wasn’t great at dealing with teasing of any kind at school. Now she’s a great teaser-back, and I frequently used this line of Ichiro’s to explain how you have to change the conversation. You can’t stay on topic. You have to empty out the anger and return it as comedy. Ten years ago, I wrote a book partly about Gary Payton, and I see some odd parallels between the two of them. As different as they are, both are beautifully incapable of staying within sportswriter cliché.

Arne: Speaking of clichés, the “overcoming adversity” trope knows no limits in athletics. Last September vs. the Yankees, Ichiro looked probably bad as he’s ever looked at Safeco, getting picked off twice in a row by a right-hander. Then he came up at game’s end and hit one out on Mariano Rivera to turn a 2-1 loss into a 3-2 win.

David: To me, it comes back again to his extraordinary craftsmanship. He is extremely rational, analytical. It’s never about adversity, etc. It’s all about making adjustments. He’s never not thinking about adjustments. When his swing’s off, Ichiro looks miserable, like all he can do is hit two-hop groundouts. But it only lasts for a game or two, then he’s right back to gathering his two hits a night. His attitude doesn’t change in response to his statistics. And, he never talks about “adversity”; he doesn’t respond to the ups and downs with those clichés about pressing, staying focused, “one day at a time,” etc. It reminds me somehow of what Hemingway did after World War I: all those big words were meaningless and his writing was about emptying out “honor,” “glory,” “country,” “patriotism,” “sacrifice,” etc., and returning himself and the reader to the vivid present. Ichiro is not post-war, but he is post-modern, post-ideology, and he is hugely about the exact moment.

Arne: When Ken Griffey Jr. came back to Seattle, there was a lot of talk about how he broke the ice for Ichiro, loosening him up, taking away the attention, making it easier for Ichiro to just be in the clubhouse. Griffey had regular tickling sessions with him; they apparently did a lot of roughhousing, clubhouse humor, etc. Ichiro seemed to like it, but he didn’t initiate it himself. He said, “In Japan, all relationships are respectful, so no one would ever do that to me. If someone else did it here, I’d probably punch them in the face.”

David: That is an interesting line by Ichiro, and it suggests the depth of his feeling on the subject. It makes me feel that Ichiro may not adore the tickling—remember again how he ran out to center field when teammates came to congratulate him after walk-off single—but he has this abiding respect of Griffey. It’s an interesting question, isn’t it, re: Griffey? Did Ichiro truly like it, or did he have to put up with it because it’s Griffey? There’s a great video of Griffey throwing his glove at Ichiro, and Ichiro genuinely seems delighted—great acting?

Arne: It seems like Ichiro wanted that sort of loose atmosphere Griffey provided, but he’s not comfortable trying to create it. Sure, he’s a huge Griffey fan, that’s why he let the tickling happen. But there’s also his self-regard, and he comes from Japan: he doesn’t pick up on the culture and behavior cues that are second nature for Griffey, who’s been around major leaguers since infancy.

David: I think obviously this has much to do with cultural styles: American slap-happy jocular jocks v. a more understated Japanese style. What’s fascinating to me is the way Ichiro plays with these styles—sometimes crossing the boundaries, sometimes not, really insisting that he is not knowable. It reminds me somehow of Todd Haynes’s film about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There; in a sense, Ichiro, too, is not there, or if he is there, he is there fleetingly before he’s off to another “there.”

Arne: Ichiro’s the guy you pay attention to at Safeco Field: no one else really commands your interest. How do you compare him to Griffey in the ‘90s?

David: It was amazing to watch Griffey in the early to mid-‘90s, wasn’t it—when he was at his peak? Your entire evening would be structured around his at-bats. The two players feel so different. I seem to want to compare them to different food groups. Griffey moved me in certain ways that Ichiro might not. When Griffey scored in game 5 vs. NY in ‘95 (I was there—really!), I hollered and cried for what felt like hours.

Arne: To what extent do you think Ichiro is playing with the media, and his fans, by presenting all his gnomic statements? At this point it’s so established you’d be much more surprised if he gave the standard flat, clichéd answer than by another weird statement from him.

David: He is definitely playing with people’s perceptions (as I tried to imply above). It’s central to who he is and it’s closely related to his game: in the same way, he gets into our heads, the heads of fans, he gets into the heads of pitchers. It’s the same M.O. You can’t predict what he’s going to do with each pitch. I must say I’m curious whether he ever perused Baseball is Just Baseball and it pushed him toward more consistently gnomic statements. I’d like to think maybe so, but who knows? In any case, he’s definitely aware that these one-off quotes are what’s expected from him.

Arne: Ichiro’s clearly a big hip-hop and rap fan. At that August game I went to, the one time he really looked away from the field was in the 8th inning, when he looked up at the video board, where fans were dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”; during the same game, the video board told us his favorite song is “Ain’t Nuthin But a G Thang.” He uses tracks from Flo Rida for his introductory songs at bat. From what I’ve heard, in Japan he’s not seen as a Zen prototype, just as an extraordinary player and pop culture icon.

David: I think that’s a better way to see him. What interests me a great deal is the way in which layer after layer of other prototypes intermix, the way in which he’s infinitely unknowable, and how important it is for him to remain so. He’s obsessed with resisting your definition of him.

Arne: What’s your essential summary of Ichiro? What would say is the core of what he does and who he is? He strikes me as finally just a ballplayer, someone who virtually every day is either practicing or playing.

David: I think of him mainly as an unusually devoted and perfectionistic craftsman. He often says, “I’m batting .360. Why am I not batting .380?”

Arne: What are your thoughts on Ichiro’s historical position? It’s apparently very important to him that he rank among the very best players. My guess is he came to the U.S. in 2001 to prove himself at a higher level than the Japanese leagues, and he’s done that, but the fear of declining and failing still keeps him dedicated to his game.

David: Last year it suddenly became a given that he is a lock to be in the Hall of Fame. Something switched over. It was no longer a question. I always think about something Mike Cameron told me: the second baseman would move over six feet to bird-dog the runner back to the base, and Ichiro would hit the ball exactly to the spot that the second baseman had just vacated. How could a human being possibly do that? That’s the question I want to keep thinking about from now until the Hall of Fame ceremony.

Arne: The Mariners are going through another woeful year, and Ichiro is once again registering a .300+ batting average for a sub-.500 team. Don’t you think he gets the urge to call out his teammates and the Mariners management, in public or in private, for their failure to commit and perform up to his standards? Especially since he’s been criticized repeatedly for not being a team player, but seems to never criticize his teammates to the media.

David: I think it’s one of the most interesting things about Ichiro. One could say that he is loyal to the Japanese owner of the team, and that is certainly part of it, but I think there is a large part of him—it was true of him when he was in Japan—who likes to play for a small-market team, prefers to play for a team that is low-key, perhaps unsuccessful, and therefore he can concentrate on his solo craft. Ichiro is very individualistic in both a good (idiosyncratic) and “bad” (“selfish”) way. He is the consummate craftsman, and I think he likes focusing on that to the exclusion of everything else. It is odd that he’s never volunteered to bat third and let Chone Figgins bat first, where Figgins is more comfortable. I think in some essential way Ichiro is not willing to sacrifice at bats or stats for the sake of the team. At least so he seems to a Western perspective. He has numerous ways in which he argues against this, and in some ways he’s right (e.g., it makes no sense to dive against the wall for a ball if you’re down 6-1 and injury will take you out of lineup for next month), but it’s hard finally not to see a certain irreducible self-immersion on Ichiro’s part (again, in both “good” and less attractive ways).

Arne: How long do you see Ichiro performing at or near his current level? He’ll be 37 this fall, but in a way he’s like Jamie Moyer or Pete Rose: he doesn’t rely on raw muscle power, and he conditions himself so well, is so focused on staying in the game, that it's hard to see signs of breakdown, and you wonder if he’ll be out there in 2020.

David: Hmm. 2020; that seems stretching the point. But certainly 2015, I would think, is a good possibility. To me, it is/was painful to see the contrast between Griffey, with his huge gut, and Ichiro, who keeps himself in top shape. This is all hyper-rational on my part, but if you’re an athlete, it seems hard to see how or why you wouldn’t stay in great physical condition, eat right, exercise in off season. Ichiro even does that thing whereby he does stretching exercises between virtually every pitch when he is in the outfield. It makes a lot of sense. He is über-utilitarian, isn’t he? He’s all about maximizing efficiency. I wonder sometimes if other players resent his no-frills attitude. He is, in a way, all business.

Arne Christensen lives in Seattle and runs, a site about that year's Mariners team, as well as a baseball history blog at

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