Thursday, August 13, 2015

Old Japanese Pitcher Throws No-Hitter

Hisashi Iwakuma (Associated Press)
Japanese-born Hisashi Iwakuma pitched a no-hitter on Wednesday in Seattle. At 34 years old, Iwakuma is the oldest pitcher since Randy Johnson threw a non-hitter in 2004. That’s according to Tim Booth, the Associated Press sports writer.

I cheered and cheer for Iwakuma and the Seattle Mariners. My friend Michi who was at the game doing play-by-play for Japan TV wrote, “Although I was there for work, I almost cried.”

Did it matter that Hisashi Iwakuma (name notwithstanding) needed to be identified as Japanese-born by the sportswriter? When Mariner pitcher Felix Hernandez pitched his perfect game no-hitter (a much more difficult achievement in facing the minimum 27 batters in a game), Seattle Times sportswriter Larry Stone  didn’t think it necessary to identify Felix by his ethnicity or by his age.

Maybe the presence of Japanese-born major league players is still mezurashi (uniquely interesting) to sportswriters and followers of the game but, as Tim Booth points out, Iwakuma joins fellow Japanese-born pitcher Hideo Nomo in the no-hitter ranks and, as we in Seattle know as we cheered for Ichiro, we didn’t need to identify him as Japanese-born.

Age of ball players reaching some level of achievement seems to be newsworthy, however. When athletes who are very young excel, they are lauded for their discipline and maturity. Older players who perform well, say, an Ichiro or the recently honored pitcher Jamie Moyer, are looked upon as rare examples of physical prowess and endurance. Baseball’s a young man’s game and Iwakuma at 34 is relatively old. Einstein published his theory of general relativity when he was 35.

Since in the Northwest we’re still grappling with how to talk about race and ethnicity, especially after the Bernie Sanders affair last weekend, it’s good that the sport reporting references to Iwakuma’s ethnicity and age stir no controversy.

It did bring to mind, however, my getting a haircut years back at a three-chair men’s barber shop on Roosevelt Avenue in Seattle where the barber (the one with the sharp instruments cutting my hair) got into a discussion with some of the clients about the Mariners playing exhibition games in Japan. “Won’t be much of a contest,” he said. “Those Japanese players just don’t play the same caliber of ball that we do in the States.” To which I demurred, saying that there were players who could play in our major leagues. He countered by going down the Mariner lineup, starting with Edgar Martinez, and worked to even out my sideburns. As he proceeded with the lineup to Jay Buhner, the sideburns kept getting adjusted side to side shorter and shorter until I called a halt and got out of the chair.

I’ve thought about that haircut and the ethnic stereotypes held by that barber when I watched and cheered Ichiro and Kaz and most recently Iwakuma. And I thought about the racial stereotyping that kept blacks like Lloyd McClendon out of managerial positions until recent years. (The end of the haircut story: My next stop was Super Cuts where I asked the cutter to even out my sideburns. I started explaining why they were uneven and she said, “Oh, no, we never discuss politics here,” and I shut up.)

So, does it matter that Iwakuma is Japanese-born? Nope. Anyone who can pitch like Kuma and Felix I want on my team. When they get older and can’t pitch like they do today, that’s another ballgame.

--Mike Sato

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