Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan
Robert K. Fitts
University of Nebraska Press, 2012
368 pp., 34.95
Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War
The University of North Carolina Press, 2012
344 pp., 60.00
Michael R. Stevens
Banzai Babe Ruth
Last week, I stood in my driveway in shorts and a t-shirt, sweaty and sun-scorched, deep into an extended long-toss session with my son Gabe. The temperature was in the mid-80s. In mid-March. In Michigan. Forty degrees above the average seasonal temperature. Warmer than the Tigers spring training game in Lakeland, Florida. The options seemed clear as I stood my ground while Gabe retrieved an errant throw that went to the back of the garage (I'm still working the arm into game-shape): either go inside and begin to compose a lament of global climate change, or take some batting practice with the tennis ball (to keep the dents in the house siding to a minimum). We went for the BP, and I, well, what did I just mention about game-shape? But with lilacs bursting out and the peach trees in full-blossom, even weak grounders back to the mound felt good.
Alas, it is cold again, and the big leaguers finally working out the kinks down in the sunbelt have no doubt begun to dread the 45 degree night games and the chilling northern rain, but they, like the fans, must feel that mounting anticipation as well, that slow, perhaps tortuously extended trajectory of split-squad games and bus-rides and three-inning starts and dreams ascending (for the surprising rookies) and collapsing (for the aging non-roster invitees on the margins). The cruel defections and serendipitous acquisitions of free-agency have been absorbed. Starting rotations are settling like sparrows on the garage roof. Lineups are coming into some manner of focus, be it sharp or bleary. The hot stoves have cooled. The 110th season of bipartite Major League Baseball, more or less as we know it, awaits. (The National League, of course, stretches 25 or so years back from there, with various forms of club and amateur baseball pushing 30 or 40 years back yet deeper into the American past.) As Hamlet once mused, "The readiness is all." Let's play ball! But wait. Unbeknownst to many, and only moderately beknownst to the serious fan, the 2012 season already began a week early and half a world away. The Mariners and the A's left home for their opening day games, but for the first time ever, the teams flew west instead of east, and played their two-game series in the Tokyo Dome, the pride of a Japanese baseball tradition that, believe it or not, has roots reaching back to the 19th century as well. (More to come on that fascinating history in a moment.) This particular trip has been lauded by MLB officials as a great success of cultural exchange through sports, with "everyone involved … brimming with gratitude, pride, empathy and friendship," according to Doug Miller of MLB.com. The games were filled with early season heroics, as Japan's favorite son and likely Hall of Famer on both sides of the Pacific, the inimitable Ichiro, went 4 for 5 in the first game, a 3-1 Seattle victory. But the A's soon saw a return on their massive investment over the winter in Cuban CF Yoenis Cespedes, who homered the next day to seal a split for Oakland.
Beyond baseball, the connection of the American players with the history and people of Japan seemed to have created a therapeutic moment for a nation still wrestling with the devastating effects of last year's tsunami and subsequent nuclear power crisis. Indeed, the fact that the whole American contingent took time out to run a practice with Little Leaguers from the ravaged city of Ishinomaki is enough to put a dent in even the most cynical detractor of baseball's massive salaries and prima-donna stars. Such intercultural exchange has a long and fascinating history, woven in and around the mutual obsession with baseball which the two nations have shared almost since the moment Americans and Japanese first met, on Commodore Perry's 1853 arrival to open Japan to the modern world.
That century-and-a-half-old story is well-rendered in two books recently published from substantial university presses. In Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan, Robert K. Fitts takes a microscopic view of the last tour of American big leaguers to Japan before World War II. And in Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War, Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu—who teaches history down the highway from me at Michigan State—offers a more a sweeping look at what baseball hath wrought in the complicated globalization paradigm that has linked the U.S. and Japan through friendship and enmity. Both volumes are heavy with research and historical data (Fitts has a Ph.D. in archaeology from Brown), and there is some crossover in content, but the two books are very different. Banzai Babe Ruth reads like a multi-stranded mystery novel , from the the presence of Moe Berg (weak-hitting catcher but future OSS/CIA spy) on the tour, to the ultra-nationalist machinations within the Japanese military societies, to the fundamental mystery of the Babe himself, just cut loose by the Yankees, aging and anxious, auditioning in front of Connie Mack for a possible Philadelphia A's managing job, lauded by the Japanese public, and rediscovering his amiable, appetitive, home-run-pounding self one last time.
Fitts weaves his strands craftily. The Babe at first refused to go, until New York-based Japanese sportswriter Sotaro Suzuki showed him the posters, in English and Japanese, featuring Ruth's familiar visage, looking slightly Oriental, which had already been created in Tokyo by Judo master, former policeman, and Yomiuri newspaper editor Matsutaro Shoriki (who would later barely survive an attack by ultranationalists for his part in bringing the decadent Ruth to Nippon). When Babe relented, a powerful team was quickly assembled, with power-hitters Jimmy Foxx (who suffered a brutal beaning on the trip) and Lou Gehrig (whom Ruth was no longer speaking to) among others. Three Hall of Famers with about 1500 homers between them, heading to a nation obsessed with a brand of baseball still strongly influenced by the small-ball ways unveiled in Japan during John McGraw's legendary visit with his Giants (including Jim Thorpe) on their 1913 World Baseball Tour. The results of the games, despite Japanese hopes in their more or less collegiate heroes, were a foregone conclusion (the All Americans won all 16 games against the All Nippons), but nothing else on this tour, Fitts points out, was quite as it seemed.
For one thing, despite having been cut loose by the Yankees, despite the toll taken by age and high living, the Babe wasn't quite done as a player. Though he took his role as manager of the squad seriously, both to prove wrong the Yankee brass who had just overlooked him, and to sway his potential employer, Connie Mack, the Babe knew the whole point of the tour was for the Japanese fans to see him play. Fitts points out that the Babe worked out diligently on the cruise across the Pacific, curbing his legendary appetites somewhat (the presence of his second wife, Claire, and adult step-daughter, Julia, may have helped, at least for a time). The initial motorcade through Tokyo found the Babe picking up in Japan what he'd lost in America, or at least New York—adoration: " 'Banzai! Banzai! Babe Ruth!' they screamed. Reveling in the attention, the Bambino grabbed American and Japanese flags from the crowd and waved one in each hand as he stood in the rear of the limousine." Likewise, at the plate Ruth found what had eluded him in his waning days with the Yankees—his power stroke. The Babe led the All Americans with 13 home runs and 33 RBIs on the trip, despite foul weather and wearisome travel schedules. Indeed, during one rain-soaked game, the Babe reprised his 1932 World Series "called shot" against the Cubs, but this time in galoshes: "Ruth stepped to the plate and dug in his big rubber boots. The crowd laughed and began chanting, 'Home run! Home run!' Hamazaki's pitch came right down the middle, belt high, and the Sultan of Swat connected with a mighty swing. The ball rose in a majestic arc and sailed over the right-field seating area and into the mist beyond." Apparently ready for the pasture back in his own country and league and city, The Bambino found in Japan the energy and spirit for one more go-around.
Likewise, the diplomatic beneficence of this 1934 tour, lauded on all sides and underscored by the massive crowds and glowing press reports, was in some respects deeply misleading. The All Americans arrived just as the U.S.-England-Japan Pacific naval treaty talks had fallen apart, and with Japanese troops firmly lodged in Manchuria. The time for a friendly bit of discourse seemed to be at hand, with the mutual love for baseball the perfect foil for the failures of government and policymakers. Alas, true reconciliation was already out of reach.
In Japan, militant nationalism was on the rise. One can easily get lost as Fitts traces the web of different groups, many centered around younger military officers and martial arts dojos, with names like the War Gods Society, the Cherry Society, and the Young Officers, all intent on the Showa Restoration, whereby the Emperor would be re-installed in full power to lead Japan to world dominance. Fitts relates several foiled coup plots, some actually overlapping with the All Americans tour. Sotaro Suzuki, who served as the tour secretary, "wrote that members of the ultranationalist groups visited him during his stay at the Imperial Hotel to complain about the All Americans' presence and warn him that the visit could have serious consequences." Furthermore, the unanimous favor with which the Americans celebrated modern Japan was misplaced: "The players' itinerary had been carefully arranged. They saw nothing of Japan's rural poverty … and had little inkling of the social and military unrest." Connie Mack, among others, was led to make inflated claims that no war would ever occur between America and Japan, and one American journalist went so far as to assert that " 'Plainly, the ball players' tour of Japan accomplished more toward engendering regard and respect for America than any notes our politicians might send across the cable." But the line of reasoning that baseball had "almost supernatural abilities … to initiate harmony and world peace," a bromide which had been in circulation since the 1880s, turned out to be wrong, as World War II brutally revealed.
The Americans were not free of duplicity—embodied, at least in nascent form on this trip, in the person of Moe Berg. His story, that of an Ivy League-educated multi-lingual back-up catcher with a penchant for filming and photographing interesting and sometimes off-limits locales throughout Japan, is one of the highlights of the narrative, though Fitts is careful to downplay claims that Berg was already a secret agent for the U.S. government in 1934. But Berg did travel to Japan with a peculiar letter of introduction to the U.S. Consul. Most intriguingly, the panoramic movie footage he took after entering the tower of a Tokyo hospital in Japanese garb and under false pretenses was used by the U.S. military to determine targets for air strikes against the Japanese capital a decade later. But at the time of the tour, the cloak-and-dagger life was likely just a dream for the him, along with mastering Japanese written script, finishing at Columbia Law School, and maybe returning to the solid defensive form that had made him the White Sox number-one catcher in 1928 and '29. If not yet a spy on this trip, Berg was certainly a cultural snoop, longing to know and perhaps to be known in Washington (he had played for the Senators and was a regular at embassy parties) in ways no ordinary ballplayer would have coveted.
And Berg is only one colorful figure among many in Fitts' narrative whose backstories (and forward stories) make them more than simply incidental figures. Fitts has an eye for the quirky details that make historical writing vivid. There is the story of Jimmy Horio, for example, born in Japan but raised in Hawaii (a longtime hotbed of ethnically rich baseball culture), who appeared on the All Nippon squad as a tacit "tryout" to see if the American big leagues would recognize his talent. Alas, he had a bad few weeks at the plate and missed this opprtunity, but he eventually made it to the high-level minors in the Pacific Coast League, playing against the DiMaggio brothers, and even playing in the Japanese professional league that Shoriki started in 1936. Eventually he moved back to Hawaii, and was living a mile or so from Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. His brother, meantime, had moved back to the family city of origin, Hiroshima, where he lived until the atomic bomb drop in August of 1945 killed him and so many others.
In a similar tangle of possibility and tragedy, the life of Eiji Sawamura is cast by Fitts in a trajectory out from those few weeks in November 1934, when this 17-year-old pitcher, only a few months removed from his secondary school championships, and in forfeiture of the amateur status that would have landed him at one of the Tokyo Big Six universities to pitch at the height of glory, chose to face down the All Americans. In keeping with the code of Japanese baseball that matched the old Bushido vision of discipline and honor, Sawamura approached the American batters "as samurai dueling to the death with glittering swords. It was a spiritual battle, to see who could outlast the other, will the other to submit." This outlook was prevalent in Japanese baseball, which had evolved during the late 19th century in "an approach to the game called Seishin Yakyu (Spirit Baseball) that emphasized unquestioning loyalty to the coach-manager and team as well as long hours of grueling practice to improve both players' skills and mental endurance …. Difficult workouts were known as 'Bloody Urine Practice,' as players would pass blood later in the evening. Despite the challenges, players were forbidden to speak of the pain but could only proclaim, 'It itches!' " Not the image of the blithe, pastoral game, nor even the hard-drinking, hard-driving big league life, that American baseball promulgated.
For one brief span, the way that shaped Sawamura seemed to trump the American way, as he struck out Tigers Hall of Fame shortstop Charlie Gehringer ("He felt that Gehringer was the only American player who showed the spirit of a samurai"), Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx in succession. In fact, the slender, lithe teenager (who'd been sickly as a child) carried a no-hitter into the fourth. When he next faced the precision and intensity of Gehringer, "Sawamura would later tell reporters[,] … he could feel the Mechanical Man's fighting spirit reaching toward him, choking his breath." But only an errant curveball to Lou Gehrig, who looped it just over the right field wall, sent Sawamura to defeat. And even with the 1-0 loss (by far the closest game of the tour), the young pitcher's fame was assured: "As years passed the importance of the game grew, and Sawamura's stature increased as he became a symbol of Imperial Japan." That role had a dark side, as Sawamura became increasingly virulent in his anti-American rhetoric, stating after he visited in 1935 that "I hate America, and I cannot possibly like American people, so I cannot live in America." He ended up serving during the late 1930s and early '40s in the Thirty-Third Infantry Regiment of the Sixteenth Division of the Imperial Army, which participated in the Rape of Nanking and later the Bataan Death March (Sawamura missed both atrocities). In an article he wrote for the baseball magazine Yakyukai in 1943, he depicted Japan's American enemies as "cruel, demonic savages." In late 1944, Sawamura died at sea when his transport ship was sunk, almost ten years to the day from the game of his life, a schoolboy almost triumphing against baseball legends, chatting with Connie Mack afterward about going to the big leagues.
So much for the power of baseball diplomacy, at least in its 1930s iteration. But Fitts doesn't leave the narrative there. Instead, he moves forward to 1949, recounting the return of Lefty O'Doul, member of the 1932 tour by Big Leaguers, frequent visitor to Japan, and friend to many killed and a few remaining after the war. O'Doul's visit in 1949 with the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals was an act of strained faith and strained hope, but hope nonetheless, that baseball might help revivify some kinship between nations so bitterly opposed for so long. In the first game of the tour, after a massive welcome to the motorcade and the packing of the stadium in Tokyo with 55,000 fans, an unexpected thing happened: "Prior to the game, the American and Japanese flags were raised together in a symbolic gesture of unity as both national anthems were played. It was the first time since the war that the flags were raised simultaneously, and it caught many Japanese by surprise. The gesture moved many to tears." Reading this narrative, of hopes nurtured, deceived, strung out, crushed, and annihilated, then somehow reborn, I can understand the tears. O'Doul was eulogized upon his death in 1969 for precisely this miraculous work: "At his 1969 funeral Monsignor Vincent Breen proclaimed, 'No single man did more to reestablish faith and friendship between our great nations than did Lefty O'Doul.' "
Not surprisingly, it is Lefty O'Doul whose image graces the cover of Transpacific Field of Dreams, smiling in a 1951 photograph as he introduces Tokyo Giants manager Shigeru Mizuhara (who had hit .095 as a young back-up third baseman on the 1934 All Nippon team) to an uncharacteristically grinning Joe DiMaggio, who, like the Babe seventeen years before, came to Japan just as his career with the Yankees had ended (through retirement for Joltin' Joe). The second half of Sayuri Guthrie-Shimuzu's book touches upon the healing influence of postwar baseball effected, in large measure, through O'Doul's love for both nations and for the game itself. But the first half of the book, with its deep delving into the historical narratives of baseball, is of particular interest to those, like myself, who want to keep chasing that mythical starting point backward in time. Though Guthrie-Shimuzu's tome has a rich dose of social science language and theory in its framework, it is not merely an academic treatise. Her aim, as she sets it out, is to "show how porous national boundaries were and how ubiquitous and variegated human webs were becoming in the period. This permeability and the mutual relevancy of historical developments across the Pacific require that what have traditionally been narrated as two relatively distinct national stories be retold as a braided historical narrative." And indeed, the braiding image is apt for her style, with the strands many and manifold. She goes way back before the Banzai Babe Ruth setting of the 1934 tour, revealing the roles of American military and especially missionary presence in the development of baseball in the Far East. The web of Japanese and American interactions also moved eastward, through Japanese labor migrations, with Hawaii as the confluence of American adventurers and Japanese workers, both groups bringing a tradition of baseball with them, to a land also hosting the final three decades in the life of Alexander Cartwright, the famed codifier of baseball's rules in the 1840s. One of Guthrie-Shimizu's primary themes is embodied in her account of the sugar plantation camp leagues of early 20th-century Hawaii, "in which Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Portugese, Puerto Ricans, and haoles competed on their own ethnic teams. Champion teams of each camp league then competed in the overarching Plantation League. America's Game thus provided a site for peaceful and orderly interethnic one-upmanship." So too, in the Japanese colonial outposts in Manchuria, Korea, and Taiwan, baseball, learned from the oppressor, became a way for indigenous teams to fight back without explicit violence (as well as a way for colonial families to keep their Japanese identity intact).
Furthermore, by showing the influx of Japanese immigrant (Issei) and second-generation (Nissei) baseball teams up and down the West Coast of North America from Vancouver to L.A., with their own multi-level system of talent development, and with frequent barnstorming teams either going to Japan or being hosted from Japan, Guthrie-Shimizu suggests a counterpoint to the bitter history of prejudice that culminated in, but neither began nor ended with, the World War II Internment Camps, where tens of thousands of Japanese Americans lived, labored and, as captured in a few of the stirring photographs in the book, continued to play baseball/yakyu.
While at many points Transpacific Field of Dreams argues for a thoughtful historical revisionism, it never feels as if Guthrie-Shimizu has had to stretch her interpretive boundaries too far to show the prevailing ignorance displayed on many sides toward the game that we all claim as "our own." I thought the finest moment in the book, where the author's method of accrual of facts and gentle interpretive prodding led to a stunning insight, was in her narrating of the 1927 tour of Japan by the Negro National League's Philadelphia Royal Giants, captained by legendary catcher Biz Mackey (who would become Roy Campanella's mentor a decade later)
One of the teams they played while in Japan was Zenimura's Fresno Athletic Club (FAC), also touring the country at the time. The FAC's traveling squad featured three white American players and a Mexican American, including a former Pacific Coast Leaguer …. The Royal Giants and the multiethnic FAC had a rematch in Seoul and Dalian, and thus African and Japanese Americans found an unlikely venue to showcase their prowess in America's Game overseas …. Outside of major league's color line, vigilantly policed by Commissioner Landis and his kindred spirits, there existed myriad multiethnic fields of play that together enriched America's Game. From this decentered vantage point, the major leagues and their racial practices were arguably an aberration in the world of American baseball, not the norm.
With this and other equally firm and equally provocative glimpses onto the complex "webs of relationship" across the baseball world, Guthrie-Shimizu offers a fresh and refreshing vision of the many "baseballs" that could, and at times actually did, coalesce into the unifying force that the game can be. And perhaps, just perhaps, Major League Baseball has taken note, and this recent trip to Japan was a real offering of the game to the world, and not sham diplomacy.
Now to the predictions for this year, in a Major League Baseball enterprise that boasts players from no fewer than 17 countries on the extended spring training rosters. My picks over the years in Books & Culture have ebbed and flowed—mostly ebbed. But close readers might have noted that I did pick the Giants to win it all two years ago (albeit over the Mariners with Ken Griffey, Jr., in a blaze of late glory). Alas, last year's predicted Cubs-White Sox L-Train series never quite materialized. But this plunge into the history of baseball across the Pacific, and its long and tumultuous relationship with the Major Leagues, has led me to a new and dare I say foolproof formulation for this year. I will locate the teams that have bridged the gap and signed players from the Asian Rim countries, to enrich both the historical and stylistic (and, not least, talent) profiles of their organizations. And if teams don't have any such players on their rosters, I will move to the far more banal Plan B, which is to wander subjectively through the 40-man rosters in search of the most intriguing names, morphologically and sonorously appealing. And in the National League I'll need to lean hard on that sketchy method, because the Asian talent is concentrated in the AL at this time.
Hence, in the NL West, we all witnessed the Diamondbacks late run last year, and we've all heard of the stabilizing presence of new ownership for the Dodgers and the enduring potentiality in the Giants starting rotation (though minus Jonathan Sanchez now). But the real reason that the Rockies and D'Backs won't compete is that they can only muster names like D. J. LeMahieu and Chris Jakubauskas, respectively, while the Padres make a bit of a surge with Jedd Gyorko's fine name (the addition of Carlos Quentin's fine bat doesn't hurt, either). But I like the Dodgers, not because of Magic Johnson in the owner's luxury box, but because Blake Hawksworth, Trent Oeltjen, and Lance Zawadzki provide crucial "name-punch" to the roster (complementing Matt Kemp's MVP-level bat punch). But the Giants will rise again, I believe, though the crucial pitcher in the system, name-wise, is not Tim Lincecum nor Ryan Vogelsong but Jean Machi. Teaming his name-power with outfielders Roger Kieschinck (a throw-back, dead-ball era name, indeed) and the bonus-point garnering Angel Pagan, I see San Francisco taking the division and the Dodgers in the wildcard hunt but falling short.
So to the NL Central, where the Cubs could have sealed things up early had they not lost Kosuke Fukudome to the crosstown ChiSox. Yet, the Cubs will be surprisingly competitive because of a glut of name-power, beginning with the new addition to the starting rotation, the pride of South Bend football fans, Jeff Samardzija. But the infield was stocked this spring as well—I think their young star shortstop Starlin Castro has name-cred as well, and with the likes of Darwin Barney, Junior Lake, and Bryan LaHair, the infield bristles with intrigue. With outfielder Matthew Szczur somewhere deep in the organization's collective "future plans," a lot of potential is here. I say the Cubs compete into August. The Reds have only long-shots Didi Gregorius and Kanekoa Texeira to bring to the table (and, okay, maybe pitcher Sam LeCure is value-added), but it won't be enough to augment Joey Votto and the batsmen of Cincy. The Astros are in trouble (present progressive tense), not just with depleted pitching and a power-outage in the lineup, but because they can't even muster full names to tip the intrigue scale, but have to settle for J. A. Happ and J. B. Shuck. A long, ugly summer awaits down Houston way. The Pirates … well, let's just say Chase d'Arnaud is their best hope, with Jo-Jo Reyes in there for a touch of spondaic rhythm. If outfielder Alex Presley legally changes his first name, I say they finish at .500. So that leaves—Surprise!—the Brewers and the Cardinals, last year's postseason teams. Sure, the Brewers lost mega-star (and well-named) Prince Fielder, but they bring back, among their bona-fide (if, in the case of Ryan Braun, clouded) stars the smooth-fielding and smooth-named Nyjer Morgan. Add to that the presence in camp of Zelous Wheeler, Brock Kjeldgaard, and the Japanese surnamed Travis Ishikawa, and you have strong possibilities for October baseball. The Cardinals, of course, lost Albert Pujols, creating a hole in their lineup and their collective psyche that the likes of Chuckie Fick and R. J. Swindle in camp can only partially fill. Yet one cannot discount the presence on the pitching staff of Marc Rzepczynski, and I think it's enough to keep the Cards competitive. Still, look for the Brewers to take a shadowy divisional crown on the last day.
In the N.L. East, things firm up a bit. Sure, the Miami Marlins have reloaded for their periodic free-agent-fueled run for the World Series, with Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Aaron Rowand, and Carlos Zambrano now under Ozzie Guillen's managerial aegis. But the camp nomenclature is not as strong as one would hope, though Arquimedes Caminero brings a certain mathematical flair. The Braves have the venerably named Dan Uggla along with Tyler Pastornicky in the infield (does Chipper Jones' nickname count anymore?), but only pitching prospect Robert Fish really augments here. The Mets have infield prospects with sonorous tags, such as Wilmer Flores, Reese Havens, and Josh Satin, but hey, this isn't a beauty contest, New York! Only the diabolically named third base coach (and former hip-shaking batting stance practitioner from my high school years) Tim Teufel keeps the Mets in the race until late. And so baseball wisdom leads us invariably to the Phillies, who boast a power rotation with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee, and Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen—and that's before we talk of their star-studded lineup anchored by Ryan Howard. But Howard tore his Achilles on the last at-bat of last season, and Placido Polanco and Jim Thome are both my age—ach, tempus fugit! So, I say that unless the team does some name-inflating by keeping Tuffy Gosewisch on as back-up catcher, the Phillies fade in the dog-days of August. Leaving, of course, the Nationals. They have young talent, in the dual phenoms Stephen Strasburg on the mound and Bryce Harper at the plate (surely they won't be able to keep him down on the farm). They have prime-of-career power in Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. All well and good. But the key to their lineup is the commitment to Taiwanese pitcher Chien-Ming Wang. I give the Nationals the division, with Strasburg a Cy Young candidate but Wang's 18 wins tipping the scales.
Before we try to formulate according to the new and unwieldy playoff system, let's cover the American League, staying in the East for the moment and starting with my childhood team, the Yankees. Right away, I see the Pinstripes have done good work in securing Japanese native Hiroki Kuroda in their rotation. But Joba Chamberlain and Michael Pineda have gone down to injury already, and I just don't see Zoilo Almonte carrying the name card far enough to save the aging (albeit Hall of Fame-bound) infield of A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, and Texeira. What about the blasted Rays, who last year created one of the most memorable final days of the season that anyone under the age of 70 has ever witnessed. Great pitching, sure, but no one from the Pacific Rim, and their best names, one bourgeois (Reid Brignac) and one proletarian (Sam Fuld), sort of cancel each other out. No, Tampa won't get that magic in a bottle this year. Instead, it's the Orioles who will make a bit of late season noise, with Taiwanese native Wei-Yin Chin and Japanese native Tsuyoshi Wada in the pitching ranks, alongside the intriguing combination name Miguel Socolovich. I like the Orioles to be in the hunt, but without enough bats (they lost Luke Scott to the Rays). The Red Sox, nemesis from my boyhood days , I long to condemn to obscurity and basement-dwelling, but alas, they feature a loaded pitching staff, including two Japanese pitchers, one the poster-child of all the quirks and successes of the recent influx of Asian players—Daisuke Masuzaka. And then there's Junichi Tazawa, and if you throw in the aristocratic sound of prospect Felix Doubront, the Sox pitching looks pretty strong. With Stolmy Pimentel in camp this spring as a pitcher, I have to hand them the division. But not by much, because the new kid in town at the top of the AL East will be the Toronto Blue Jays. There's so much to like here, with Jose Bautista as the most complete player in the AL (his punch on offense matched by his defensive prowess) and a young, flashy infield working the Sky Dome turf. The pitching is also young, with a huge upside, but little-noticed is the mythic-level name of pitcher Trystan Magnuson (cue your image of Valhalla) and the ultimate (at least thus far) geographical breakthrough of the 21st century—the inclusion of a European player on the pitching staff, as Dutchman Rick VandenHurk now plies his fireballing craft in Blue Jay land. Definite wildcard contender north of the border!
The AL Central is the territory I dwell in now, as an avid listener to Detroit Tiger radio broadcasts throughout the season (is there a more comforting play-by-play voice than that of Dan Dickerson?), and the Tigers are obviously stacked to the ceiling with talent: reigning Cy Young-MVP winner Justin Verlander fronts a strong rotation, the bullpen is solid, the lineup has the one-two punch of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, two dominant hitters still in their twenties. But I'm concerned about the lack of players from outside the Western Hemisphere, and also the lack of strong nomenclature (with the exception of longshot pitching prospect Chris Bootcheck). On the other hand, the White Sox seem to have unloaded their win-now opportunities in the off-season, and not even the importation of outfielder Kosuke Fukudome from across town can fill the gaps they've created. I want to root for the Kansas City Royals a bit, and they have some of the best-named young regulars in Johnny Giavotella, Mike Moustakas, and Kevin Kouzmanoff, but the pitching, the pitching, the troubles with pitching. If Jonathan Sanchez and Jonathan Broxton work out, maybe a mid-August run can evolve. Maybe. Then we have the on-again, off-again Indians, whose best player might well be the only South Korean regular in the Major Leagues, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo—a great name and a fine hitter, but unless a power-name like outfielder Nick Weglarz rises up, I see the Indians struggling in the rotation after their ace Justin Masterson. And then we have the Twins, a team given up for dead last year, decimated by injuries, barely able to limp to the end of the 2011 season. No one is picking them to rebound to former over-achieving glory, but when young pitching combines with MVP-caliber-when-healthy hitters Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, and speed-merchant outfielders Ben Revere and Denard Span—well, there's something here! Add in slick-fielding shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and all the necessary pieces are in place (with a final name-nudge from Trevor Plouffe). I have the Twins as contenders for the wildcard. Tigers still win the division, but in a tight scuffle.
The AL West lives up to the history of the West Coast as a gateway for Asian baseball entering the United States. So, not surprisingly, the Seattle Mariners, who have Japanese ownership and are located in a traditional hub of Japanese immigration going back to the 19th century, are something of a flagship for my thesis. Not only do they have the most famous Japanese player ever to come to Major League Baseball, the peerless slap-hitter Ichiro, but also pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma. And Ichiro is joined in the outfield by Taiwanese standout Chih-Hsien Chiang, just as Iwakuma is joined on the pitching staff by Hong-Chih Kuo. Add to all this the mellifluous name of catcher Jesus Sucre, and the predictions of Mariners as cellar-dwellers prove foolhardy. They will compete, with name- and skill-worthy players like Justin Smoak and Mike Carp filling out a youthful lineup. But the division is stacked. The L. A. Angels now have Albert Pujols, the greatest hitter of our generation, anchoring a veteran batting order designed to win now. And their pitching is perhaps even better, not only because of Jared Weaver and Dan Haren, but because of Hisanori Takahashi. They are expected to be playing in October, and perhaps only a rash of injuries can derail that hope. Will the A's stand in the way of this master-plan? I want to root for them, not only because Kurt Suzuki is of Japanese lineage (and got to meet distant relatives for the first time during the A's-Mariners trip last week), but because Kila Ka'aihue represents that great nexus of baseball East and West, the Hawaiian hotbed. But I'm sorry, even the presence of name-meister Colin Cowgill in the outfield won't bring in the harvest for the Athletics. Indeed, even the Angels will have to take second-fiddle to the team that has itself taken second-fiddle in the World Series the last two years, the Texas Rangers. This is the year the Rangers have been waiting for, the inexorable year, because the loss of their ace C. J. Wilson (who has self-reported that he occasionally throws the most famous pitch of Japanese origin, the Gyroball—a conversation for another time) has been more than ameliorated by the acquisition of the most coveted Japanese pitcher ever, Yu Darvish. If Yu can bring even half his promise to fruition, and that alongside pitching mates Yoshinori Tateyama and Koji Uehara, the Rangers will be ready to finish their unfinished business of the last few seasons, especially with their run-producing machine of a batting order still intact.
Hence, the postseason will look something like this (if I understand the new double-wildcard shuffle at all): In the NL, the Phillies and the Cardinals will meet in the one-game tilt, with the Phillies winning. Then, at the divisional level, the Giants will take the Phillies to five and send them home as disappointments again, while the Brewers will get swept by the Nationals juggernaut. The NLCS will finally show Stephen Strasburg to a national audience as a magical arm, and in a Game 7 showdown with the ultra-competitive Tim Lincecum, Strasburg will match the Giants' ace blow for blow until the eleventh, when our generation's version of Lefty O'Doul, the former pitching star who transformed himself into a solid outfielder and hitter—yes, I am speaking of the Nationals' secret weapon, Rick Ankiel—will take Brian Wilson deep and bring the World Series back to the nation's capital for the first time since Walter Johnson still strode the earth.
The AL first round will feature the Twins and the Blue Jays, boggling the minds of everyone who picked the Angels to go all the way. No, it will be these smaller market teams, with rich histories of success but with recent struggles, rising up in a one-game match for the ages—or maybe a ho-hum eight-run victory for the Jays, as the Twins run out of steam. Then Toronto goes west to face the Rangers, while the Red Sox and Tigers dig in and do battle. Here, I must leave my personal desires and biases behind (wait, I already did that when I put the Yankees eight games back at the finish!), and suggest that the Blue Jays, my Cinderalla pick, get swept by Texas in ugly fashion, while the Tigers and Red Sox go seven, with Justin Verlander (the contemporary pitcher who perhaps most befits the "Samurai Way" on the mound) and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who once went more than 15 innnings in the championship game of the fabled Japanese high school Koshien tournament, match wits and power and wicked stuff for the full nine, with the Sox taking it on a squeeze play. So, Texas vs. Boston in the ALCS, and Texas will sweep the exhausted BoSox from the series in harshly efficient fashion, with Darvish untouchable in the finisher.
And thus the World Series will match the Rangers, the team that defected from Washington, D.C. forty years ago (the second defection, after Minnesota had already done it 50 years ago), against the team that brought baseball back to the Potomac city. With Strasburg on an odd rotation, the starters in Game 1, 4 and 7 will be Chien-Ming Wang vs. Yu Darvish, reminiscent of the long history of Asian baseball echoed in Guthrie-Shimizu's observation that "In the 1920's, playing baseball was thus crafted into an emblem of Japanese-Taiwanese cultural harmony." And the Nationals, against all odds and with a bevy of unexpected heroes (World Series MVP Steve Lombardozzi, Jr.?! Ten scoreless innings by Atahualpa Severino?!) will bring it home in style to the one spot in the world most in need of baseball's diplomatic healing power right now: Washington, D.C.
Michael R. Stevens is professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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