Friday, July 29, 2016

First They Support You, Then They Attack

There’s a new article appearing on the ESPN site today about Ichiro Suzuki, the Japanese-born baseball star who is closing in on 3,000 career hits in the major leagues.

Suzuki had already had a significantly successful career in Japan before making his Major League Baseball debut in 2001 at the age of 27. He played nine years fro the Orix Blue Wave of the Nippon Professional Baseball league, accumulating 1,278 hits while batting .353 and winning the league’s MVP award three times.

This is his 16th season in the majors, and today he sits with 2,998 hits in the MLB. That means all told he has 4,276 hits across his entire career. A few weeks ago when his overall total surpassed Pete Rose’s MLB record of 4,256 hits in the MLB, there was small bit of back-and-forth over whether or not Suzuki had really broken any record or not.

I’ve written here about Rose before, a hero of my youth who at age 75 is now still a controversial figure thanks to his ignoble, forced exit from baseball. Around the time Suzuki’s cumulative hit total reached and then surpassed Rose’s in mid-June, Rose was quoted in USA Today making kind of a snarky comment about the notion that Suzuki could be considered the hit “king.”

“It sounds like in Japan they’re trying to make me the Hit Queen,” Rose told USA Today. “I’m not trying to take anything away from Ichiro, he’s had a Hall of Fame career, but the next thing you know, they’ll be counting his high-school hits.”

Getting back to today’s ESPN article, Suzuki was asked if anything bothered him about the coverage from when he passed Rose’s total. The question wasn’t specifically about Rose’s comment, but that’s what Suzuki addressed in his response.

“I was actually happy to see the Hit King get defensive,” says Suzuki, unsubtly acknowledging Rose’s crown. “I kind of felt I was accepted.”

He goes to explain how about five years ago he’d heard Rose had said some positive things about him, even saying he wished Suzuki could break his record. “Obviously, this time around it was a different vibe,” adds Suzuki.

That’s when Suzuki adds an interesting comment about American culture that kind of explains his point about feeling as though he had been accepted upon hearing Rose’s comments last month.

“In the 16 years that I have been here, what I’ve noticed is that in America, when people feel like a person is below them, not just in numbers but in general, they will kind of talk you up,” says Suzuki. “But then when you get up to the same level or maybe even higher, they get in attack mode; they are maybe not as supportive. I kind of felt that this time.”

That observation actually made me think of poker, a game which more than a few people have recognized parallels various “American” ideas and characteristics. I’m thinking on a “macro” level about how the game works and continues to sustain itself, not about particular strategy or even game mechanics.

In poker, the good players often try to encourage the bad players to remain in the game -- or at least that’s what the good players who have some clue about how the game actually works are doing. They compliment and even nurture (to an extent) the lesser-skilled in order to keep them playing, which in turn helps keep the “economy” of the game healthy.

Then, once the not-so-good players become good themselves, they aren’t treated quite the same way. To put it in Suzuki’s terms, the good ones don’t “talk them up” as often, and in fact may well go into “attack mode” (so to speak), having recognized their own status being legitimately challenged.

I hadn’t thought all that specifically about this process occurring on a cultural level, and in fact being a distinguishing characteristic of American society. But I think Suzuki is probably onto something with the observation.

He’s 42 now, and says in the article he wants to play until he’s 50. I suppose if he did there exists an outside chance Rose’s crown as MLB hit king could be threatened for real, although the chances are heavily against that happening. In any case, ornery old Rose will certainly let us know if he thinks there’s ever a real threat to his title.

Image: “Ichiro Suzuki at bat in St. Louis, 2016” (adapted), Johnmaxmena2. CC BY-SA 4.0.

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