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The Japanese effect on Major League Baseball
on September 6, 2004
Robert Whiting has written several books about Japanese baseball, including "You Gotta Have Wa" and "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat." His latest effort, "The Meaning of Ichiro..." is a good bookend for the other two, in that here he details Japanese players finding their way to the U.S. Major Leagues. The title is a bit misleading, because the book is not strictly about Ichiro, but also deals with success stories such as Hideo Nomo, Hideki Matsui, Kazuo Matsui and the challenges to a player like Hideki Irabu.
Whiting includes a lot of interesting history, some of it rehashed from earlier volumes, but necessary here if one is to read this as a stand alone piece. He details the birth of baseball in Japan, how it became Japanized with the intense training, and some early experiences in cross-cultural play with teams from the United States. There is also some philosophy, for it is important to understand the Japanese culture and mindset, as well as the almost martial training that players endure in Japan. All very fascinating stuff.
The bulk of the book focuses on those players since 1995 who have made their way across the Pacific to play for teams in North America. The stories about Ichiro, Nomo and Hideki Matsui are near-mythical, and one has to wonder how much truth was embellished by their families and coaches. But aren't the stories of players of this caliber always near-mythical?
While the prose reads well, and Whiting is very knowledgeable about the Japanese game, I found numerous factual errors. Ichiro was born in 1973, but the book had him entering junior high school in 1975! Now that's precocious. Probably a typo, but in a baseball book, errors with dates and stats are killers. Another error had the Yankees winning the 1995 World Series, when they were ousted in the Division Series by the Seattle Mariners. Yeah, it's nit-picky, but it does make one wonder about the other stats and whether the fact-checkers and editors did their jobs well or not.
The other knock that I have is that Whiting made some references about Seattle that sounded like he has never even been to the city, or that his information is terribly dated. Watch those adjectives. He referred to "rain-soaked Safeco Field" possibly without knowing that it has a retractable roof, and that during the summer, Seattle is one of the drier places to be in the U.S. and way more so than in rainy, muggy Japan. Check out Art Thiel's "Out of Left Field" for the story of baseball in Seattle.
Still, it's a great read and provides many insights in how the Japanese players perceive the North American game. The biggest thing to take away is that players in MLB should bone up on their fundamentals, kind of like the NBA players need to brush up against their international competition. The world is catching up...