Day 12 of (at least) 30 baseball book reviews in 2021: Zen and the Art of Ichiro Logic

“The Only Way is the Steady Way: Essays On Baseball,
Ichiro and How We Watch the Game”

The author:
Andrew Forbes

The publishing info:
Invisible Publishing
192 pages
Released April 2, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At the author’s website
At The Last Book Store in LA

The review in 90 feet or less

One of the self-preservation books we came to lean on during the pandemic was a New York Times’ bestseller from 2018 that continued to stay relevant called “Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” by James Clear. (Avery Books/Penguin/Random, $27, 320 pages).

The end game is a realization that if you can make yourself better by one percent every day for a year, you’ll end up 37 percent better by the time you’re finished. If you go one percent worse each day, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The analogy is how whacking a rock with a hammer 100 times doesn’t cause it to finally crumble because of that 100th whack, but it was the 99 previous blows that made the small progress leading up to that moment. There’s plenty of biology, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology and more that goes into it. Like, math, maybe …

Sports also has its place in this playing-out-the-string theory.

When he was coaching the Lakers in the 1980s, Pat Riley developed a number-driven formula – Career Best Effort – that captured one’s peak performance and then found ways to force a player to improve upon at by one percent with each new measurement.  “The CBE Program is a prime example of the power of reflection and review,” writes Clear. “The Lakers were already talented. CBE helped them get the most out of what they had and made sure their habits improved rather than declined.”

When Canadian-based Andrew Forbes slowly but surely plowed through his own COVID consternation and produced a follow up to his 2016 book, “The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays,” the focus was back on how small amounts of progress get us by.

And baseball can show how that’s done.

Baseball is habit forming, right?

The title of this collection here comes from a quote of Forbes’ favorite player, Ichiro Suzuki. And not to create any sort of spoiler alert, but this is what Ichiro said when asked about his philosophy of life, and what Forbes holds up to the light.

From page 161:

“I don’t know much about a philosophy of life, but when I think of it as a way I go through life … I can’t work harder than everyone else. Right until the end, you are only measured against yourself. As you do that, as you see your limits, you try to over and over surpass yourself a tiny bit. That’s how I eventually become who I am. One can only do this in small increments, but that is the way to surpass yourself. If you try and change in leaps and bounds, that gap between where you are (and your target) becomes too large and I think unsustainable. So the only way is the steady way.”

You can’t hit a six-run homer, so try going base to base and keep the lineup turning.

Forbes even says as much with an essay from his book that he recently adapted for Walrus Magazine called “Why Home Runs Are Bad for Baseball” that included: “In the anti-intellectual atmosphere of post-9/11 America, though, the swift and brutal rip through the strike zone seemed more appropriate than ever. … (but) at this point, arguing against the home run is pointless. The results are in and brawn has won—both in the ratings and on the field—and now, squarely within the launch-angle era, the essential violence of the act hints that baseball’s ostensible pastorality was misquoted, or ill understood, or more darkly still, a craven dishonesty.”

All the essays Forbes pens leads to that karmic moment of clarity. Up to that point, his 26 previous works take more meaningful moments from baseball and try to find how the game’s heartbeat coordinates with lessons learned.

There is calm and preciseness in the observations by Forbes, a Gen Xer who is married with kids and incorporates that into his pieces. Staying in the moment to capture its essential molecules and constant change, Forbes’ focus on Ichiro becomes the on-going touchpoint, reflections of his consistency, dedication and longevity. If Ichiro is really is the poetry in motion on a diamond, Forbes adds the polish.

And again, it beats boredom.

Even Forbes admits that his process of writing the book between 2018 and late 2020 was not without anxiety, as he wasn’t sure when he finished the forward in November, ’20, what the world would even look like when this month came around for its release. Think about that.

“Happily, the larger subject of this volume is the purity of effort, and that’s a subject without an expiration date, and impervious to the news cycle,” he writes. “I’m hopeful there are sunny days ahead when we can gather in person and watch baseball and share our love of it together.”

From there, he talks about his observations of today’s game and how they impact his focus.

From page 7:

I understand the contemporary game is not without its problems, and yet when I see its perfect motion, the expressions of the faultless geometry at its heart, I forgive all that. I see the game’s power to enmesh us within a community, to encourage productive entanglements, putting us side by side in the grandstand both literal and figurative. … I see its offer of daily rescue for six months of the year from this increasingly Stygian reality.”

How it goes in the scorebook

A seventh-inning stretch of profound wisdom. The book is small and paperback, which should allow for it to be taken inside any stadium this year and used to read between innings.

Just before the 2021 MLB season started, there was consternation for anyone a fan of the Seattle franchise. The Mariners’ team president at the time, Kevin Mather, made some “dyspeptic comments” about some of his players that capture “what’s wrong with Major League Baseball,” says the headline above a column by USA Today’s Gabe Lacques.

We wondered if there was material in all that for a Forbes’ follow up essay. Maybe, sooner than later.

An author Q&A

Not our author conversation, but one with the Pandemic Baseball Book Club, which Forbes is one of its many high-end authors and members, produced some of these questions and answers recently:

Q Why this book? Why now?

A: Much of the baseball writing I’ve done since the release of my first baseball book, The Utility of Boredom, is contained here, but the larger project came about when Ichiro returned to the Mariners in 2018, struggled, and then abruptly stepped away from the field until Seattle played a couple of games in Tokyo in March, 2019, after which he retired. By that time I knew that I was writing a book about Ichiro, and my relationship to him as a fan, and his symbolism of greater things.

Q What’s one noteworthy thing you learned during the research of your book?

A: One of the longer pieces in the book involves a 1923 exhibition game played in Peterborough, Ontario (where I live), involving Tris Speaker and Roger Peckinpaugh. It is far and away the most heavily researched piece in the book; I worked on it off and on for about four years. In the process, I learned a lot about the town and the history of the ballpark there. It began life as an empty lot adjacent to a brewery, was converted into a covered skating rink, and then leveled and turned into a ball diamond in about 1885. It has remained in that configuration ever since. My son did his Little League tryouts there, and we sometimes go there to watch softball in the summer. I love the continuity of that.

Q What’s one memorable instance of your editor lending direction in a general way? How about in a specific way?

A: The managing editor at Invisible Publishing, Andrew Faulkner, is a big baseball fan as well as a fantastic editor. He worked on my previous baseball book, and without question made it much better. He was involved in my new book very early on, and was never less than overwhelmingly encouraging. “Keep writing,” he said, when I was unsure just what shape the book would take. “We’ll figure it out later.” As publication neared, he pointed out a large swath of Ichiro’s career about which I had barely written, and suggested that I direct my energy there. The resulting piece, “Don’t Stop to Count the Years,” is a big part of the book, and I’m eternally grateful to Andrew for nudging me toward finishing it.

Q Did you receive any notable outside help in pulling the manuscript together?

A: In May, 2018, just as Ichiro stepped away from playing, I went with a friend — the poet and teacher Rob Winger — to see the Mariners play in Toronto. We’d bought the tickets hoping to see Ichiro take the field, but a week or so before the game it was announced that he was being removed from the roster. We’d read that he was still taking BP, though, so we kept the tickets and took the train into Toronto early, and there he was, in the cage, ripping homers off the facade of the upper deck. It was magical. I talked to Rob a lot about the book that day, and told him I was having trouble envisioning the form it would take. Rob pointed out that it sounded like Ichiro was more than a ballplayer to me, and that he was providing an example of how to move through time: rowing the boat to the far shore, making that long journey across life’s surface. That became the way I saw the book. I don’t know how long it would have taken me to discover that if Rob hadn’t helped me.

More to cover

== A review from includes: “I love that baseball fans still talk so passionately about the heroes of the past, that lineage that Forbes mentions is central to the experience and passed on through the generations with reverence.”

== In 2016, Forbes posted this essay on Ichiro for Eephus Magazine, a Los Angeles Review of Books Channel. In 2018, for Sinkhole Magazine, Forbes did this Ichiro essay, included in his new book.

== In ’16, Forbes also did a Q&A with Eephus Magazine. A part of that:

Q: When was the last time sports made you cry?
A: I’m an easy mark when it comes to emotions that spill out of my eyes when something happens on a ball diamond. I know I got a little watery when Vin Scully was on the field for a little thing ahead of his final Dodger home opener back in April. I wept in confusion and joy during the 7th inning of Game 5 of the ALDS last October. I also screamed myself hoarse. But the most recent instance wasn’t about baseball or professional sport of any kind; my kid, my eldest, my daughter, ten years old, recently ran in her first track meet. It was an all day affair, characterized by quick bursts of excitement separated by hours of inaction and waiting and sunburn and thirst, but her first event of the day was a grade four girls’ 100M heat. I’d never seen her compete in anything like this before, and she was nervous as all get out. I wanted for her to do well, not because I need her to win or anything like that, but because I wanted her to learn that she could do something like that. She took the heat easily—like, by a mile—and my wife and I were just beside ourselves, completely overcome with excitement on her behalf, and pride, I guess, or whatever we call that emotion which arises when a small human that you’ve created goes and does something it doesn’t think it can do.

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