We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Those words of TS Eliot came to mind while watching what turned out to be Ichiro Suzuki‘s farewell at bat, during the Mariners’ opening game against the A’s in Tokyo at the beginning of the season last year. Perhaps it was the poet laureate’s meditative verse that inspired Baseball’s own philosopher king, A. Bartlett Giamatti to remind us that “In baseball, everyone wants to arrive at the same place, which is where they start”.
The word “journey” is much used nowadays. It almost seems obligatory for contestants in the latest reality programme or talent show to speak of “being on a journey”. But long before Simon Cowell et al would see their dreams come to peak-time fruition, baseball writers drew attention to the idea that our game is the ultimate sporting expression of that journey which reflects all life experience.
Indeed, the introduction to that definitive documentary – Ken Burns’ Baseball – memorably begins with the reminder that this game is an “American odyssey” which can tell us everything we need to know about “failure and loss, imperishable hope and coming home”.
And certainly those resonances were to be found aplenty in the emotional tableau that we saw broadcast from Yomiuri Giants stadium. This was Homer’s hero coming home albeit in the teal colours of Seattle. It was journey’s end for the ageing warrior carried aloft by his men who both celebrated those shared past victories while mourning the loss of their companion in arms.
It is a return that some warriors make of their own volition. Recognising that the time is right to come home is the final skill that not all are lucky to possess. For every hero who rides back in victory, there are those – as the history of baseball tells us again and again – who are forced down against their will in miserable defeat and ignominy.
Of course Ichiro makes such comparisons easy to draw. His almost mythical status within the game, his dedication to the craft and the mystical air that always seem to be at the heart of his approach. Even his famous stance at the plate, bat held aloft as a sword reminded us that the word “game” should never be allowed to distract us from the primeval battle that is at the heart of this fight between pitcher and batter.
And off the field this image was strengthened further. His legendary asceticism. The self denial learnt from his father, the Buddhist priest. In an age of hedonistic excess and binged pleasures, the abstinence and discipline of the monk still has its allure. And Ichiro was baseball’s very own Komuso, Zen’s so-called “monks of nothingness” whose similar single minded devotion and concentration to the task in hand set them aside as elite spiritual masters.
The tradition of the warrior monk was long established within Japanese Buddhism. And as much as the ability to fight was needless to say an essential quality of the samurai, it was equally important that they would always understand the reality of their own limits. The oracle’s admonition to “Know thyself” was as important in Osaka as it was in Delphi.
And one of the most important lessons for any warrior was the inherent skill of evaluating with unforgiving clarity one’s own chances of victory. It was said of the Japanese samurai that those with the best swordsmanship could judge in an instant their opponent’s ability from simply looking at his stance and grip. At that moment of initial encounter – barring some quirk of capricious fate – the path home to victory or of course defeat was already determined.
Perhaps then Ichiro had come to a similar realisation that it was his time and with that he would choose the manner of his own passing. And the timing was perfect in so many ways. Spring in Japan is of course cherry blossom season, when over the centuries artists, musicians and poets have celebrated and yes mourned that strange mixture of emotions that this short fleeting time brings. When thoughts of abundance and hope mingle with intimations of our inevitable disappointment and mortality. Indeed, it was not only Elliot who recognised “the cruellest month” for what it is.
And in a further gift from the gods of synchronicity, this was not the only era that was coming to an end in Japan. Having indicated previously that he was no longer able to fulfil his official duties, the ageing Emperor had already begun the ritual preparations for his abdication at the end of April with which the new Imperial calendar would begin.
Our histories are drawn on many canvases from the grandest of national tableau to the intimacy of a shared moment in time; but the stories told and the emotions inspired can strike home in the same deep way within our souls. However great or insignificant the throne from which the hero steps down, the grief of loss resonates equally.
Those emotions are something that Baseball knows a lot about as the wealth of its great writings will testify. It is after all just another path or – dare I say it – journey towards that eternal quest to understand what it means to be human. For where better to tackle those mountains and valleys of existential angst than within the span of 9 innings? Or as Commissioner Giamatti so memorably noted, it is a game that is “designed to break your heart”.
I originally assumed that I would end with a suitably cherry blossom laden haiku of which there are many to choose. Instead, perhaps this classic from the master of the genre Basho is more appropriate for those of a ballpark persuasion. I offer then my loose translation as a humble tribute to baseball’s own warriors of summer:
Yume no ato
A mound of summer grass
Where ancient warriors stood
Nothing but a dream now
Image provided by Getty Images