Readings from the gospels of Ichiro Suzuki

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Andrew Forbes’ new book The Only Way is the Steady Way: Essays on Baseball, Ichiro, and How We Watch the Game is a splendid meditation on life and the game.

When I finished reading Andrew Forbes’ first collection of baseball essays in 2017, The Utility of Boredom, I knew I had found another fan with whom my vision of the game aligned. We were fascinated by the same enigmatic players — Ichiro, Roy Halladay, Pete Rose — and had gone on similar minor league road trips. Forbes spoke nostalgically about the game I grew up with, his love of listening to baseball on the radio, and he had a penchant for telling yarns.

Reading Utility felt like a conversation two fans might have while sitting in the bleachers at a Durham Bulls’ game. The Only Way is the Steady Way: Essays on Baseball, Ichiro, and How We Watch the Game continues that chat. In short, if Forbes is preaching to the choir in this second book, as other reviewers could accuse him of doing, I will happily hear the sermon. However, you don’t have to read the first book to enjoy this one. If you love David Eckstein, a well-timed stolen base, or the @Super70sSports Twitter account, this Bud’s for you.

Forbes’ essays are as consumable as a large tub of popcorn. He’s a Gen Xer who is married with kids and he writes about his messy, rewarding life. He’s a city guy who moved to the country and had to learn to “adult,” a change well-captured in the essay, “Don’t Stop to Count the Years.” Mostly, though, he’s a baseball lover who sees his fandom as “the part of [himself] that will never grow up.” He renders the history, the stars, and the memorabilia of the game in loving detail. Players seem relatable in Forbes’ depictions. One such example is the controversial Gaylord Perry: “once he moved on from the Giants he seemed to have achieved a more or less permanent state of dishevelment.” Anyone who has seen a photo of Perry would agree. Lovers of good literature will enjoy Forbes’ humanizing descriptions of Tris Speaker, Yordan Alvarez, Dooley Womack, and many more.

Most of the essays in The Only Way are five pages or less. You could read one a day and be done inside a month. Or, start in the middle, pick around, and read them as standalones. If you do that, I suggest starting with “Simulacra” or “Ichiro: Star of Baseball.” If you read the book cover to cover, you’ll become invested in the narrative of Forbes’ growing family, which aligns with the timeline of Ichiro’s career and other ballplayers’ through essays like, “Don’t Stop to Count the Years” and “Every Fifth Day.” If you’re a child of the 1990s, Forbes’ cadences will bring you back to conversations you had with friends you haven’t seen since college. He will say the things you wish you could, like “I have been unkind, let friendships wither, hermited myself inside a life defined by my family and writing, I have wavered and doubted and let fear guide my actions.” Baseball is his link to his youth, a “pure” part of himself.

Alternatively, Forbes also provides a different perspective for American readers — his Topps 1987 set is called by its Canadian name — O-Pee-Chees. The Expos are name-dropped several times. Blue Jays’ playoff appearances are cataloged in several essays, most notably, “Timelines.” When he writes about the team, it’s as if a whole country is behind him, because they are. On his son’s little league team, The Red Sox, “just about all of [the kids] wore Blue Jays caps.” Often, the mirror he holds up for American readers shows us what we don’t want to see — the decay of Detroit or the racism of the Cleveland Indians — but Forbes does not moralize from his Ontario perch. After all, the lights at Tiger Stadium were “visible from even across the river in Windsor.”

What can life lessons can we take from the career arc of Ichiro Suzuki?

Ichiro is mentioned by name in the subtitle of The Only Way and is indeed a central character. Gen X and Millennial fans saw Ichiro’s whole career in the States, and if we were paying attention, highlights from Japan. As a steadying force in the game for over a decade, Forbes’ struggle to accept Ichiro’s decline and retirement was one I identified with. It’s as if we thought he might appear at every spring training until the end of time. Ichiro himself said he would die when he was done playing. What did we expect?

The Japanese star’s career timeline runs parallel and then intersects with Forbes’ own personal narrative of growing up and raising a family. This is poignantly told in essays like “The Sense of An Ending”: “…his familiar presence put me in touch with the person I was a long time ago, and a time from which I am otherwise exceptionally distant.” Ichiro’s constancy of routine, MVP numbers, and omnipresence at ballparks buoyed us through the first part of this millennium and our young adult lives. It was a hard loss for fans of a certain generation.

Forbes’ discussion on “how we watch the game,” another topic mentioned in the title, extends past Ichiro. The author explains that a ballgame is the ubiquitous “soundtrack to his everyday life” in the summers and background noise for doing chores or hanging with his kids. I suspect this is true for most of us. Relatedly, he opines about the current pace of play and how certain analytical strategies have made the game almost unrecognizable. Far from a “get off my lawn” type, you can tell that Forbes hopes that hitting behind the runner will come back into fashion someday.

The author is sentimental about the game, but not at the expense of omitting reality. He says, “…[baseball] possesses visual suggestions of timelessness — rolling fields, pennants snapping in the breeze, pinstripes, stirrups, leather belts — but is in fact in a constant process of change.” He manages to talk directly about the business side of the game, racism and xenophobia surrounding Asian and Black players, and even Covid’s impact without “killing” your sentimental buzz. Baseball’s current format — embrace of the three true outcomes, especially the homer — reminds Forbes of the western world’s current enchantment with populist governments and capitalism. This struggle to write truthfully about the game is hard-won and many readers will appreciate it.

It’s also painful but necessary for Forbes to tell of failure and controversy, including the end of Ken Griffey Jr.’s career, stories of Pedro Guerrero and Mark McGuire, and minor leaguers who never made it. As he mentions in “Overrunning It”: “I cheer for the runner rounding third and chugging into home, but I identify with the guy who overran the ball.” Readers will see themselves in these pieces too. Some of the players and places we loved we now hate and vice versa. Take for instance the multi-purpose stadiums of the 1960s and 1970s, mostly gone now, which represent to this author “progress, unity, artificiality, decline, blight” all at once. Forbes won’t tell you how to be a fan, but he will press you to take stock of your fandom.

Finally, the game never loses its “irreducible baseballness” to Forbes, which is exactly why we still love it, even as it is designed to hurt us, a bit like Felix Hernandez’s last start in Seattle. Forbes reminds us when he talks about the Covid stoppage that “…the world has crumbled before, and baseball’s still here, just as it will be when everything settles down again.” Readers will remember that when a game is on, we can access that part of ourselves that has otherwise disappeared. I recommend you pick up The Only Way is the Steady Way when the baseball season begins and The Utility of Boredom right now. Read one essay a day and I promise you will start a streak.

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