Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Beer Leaguers: Sapporo and Hideki Matsui

Last weekend, The Common Man took The Boy to visit his grandparents and great-grandmother for a couple days, figuring he’d enjoy some home cooking. Of course, to The Common Man’s mother, “home cooking” usually involves either a) throwing a Costco-bought tri-tip roast on the grill or b) making reservations. On Saturday night, it was the latter, and the whole clan absconded to a new Japanese teppanyaki and sushi restaurant. The food was plentiful and delicious. The show put on by the chef was also impressive. The Boy especially loved seeing the fire and trying (unsuccessfully) to catch shrimp in his mouth (“I couldn’t catch it because I have a small mouth; when I get bigger my mouth will get bigger and I will catch it.”).

Along with his filet, scallops, and shrimp, The Common Man ordered a Sapporo. Sapporo is the most popular Japanese beer in the United States, and is considered an import, even though its North American bottles are just brewed in Canada. It's also still one of the more popular beers in Japan. The beer is clear and gold and has a clean and light taste that TCM would describe as brittle. What’s amazing to The Common Man is just how stereotypically “American” this beer seems. It’s like a slightly more flavorful Miller Lite, but its name and ancestry gives off the sense that it’s more special than it really is.

Essentially, this beer is Hideki Matsui. Now, The Common Man knows that it would be somewhat problematic to match up a Japanese beer with a Japanese player simply because they’re Japanese. Certainly, the common ancestry of both the Angels’ new designated hitter and this beer play a large role in this determination, but that’s not just because they are Japanese, per se. Rather, just as there are relatively few Japanese beers on the American market, there are very few Japanese ball players in the majors right now, particularly position players. So Taguchi got into 6 games last year for the Cubs, but he’s never gained any real popularity in the states, unlike Matsui. Similarly, Aki Iwamura and Kaz Matsui have never achieved mainstream popularity. Kosuke Fukudome is a huge source of frustration for Cubs fans. And Kenji Johjima has returned to Japan after a short, up-and-down career here.

Ichiro, of course, stars for the Mariners, but he has always been a singular force within the game, at once embodying excellence and otherness on the field. Forgive the expression, but everything about Ichiro informs the common acknowledgement of his Japanese-ness. His approach at the plate, the style of his game, his excellent defense, and his alleged aloofness and distance from his teammates. Indeed, Ichiro has always been held up as an enigma by the baseball press because of the communication barrier he uses and his disarming humor. Also, despite his enormous popularity both in the States and at home, he plays in Seattle, which is far outside the traditional scope of the mainstream media.

Hideki Matsui, meanwhile, has lived in a fishbowl as a member of the New York Yankees. His movements are constantly followed here and at home, sometimes to hilarious extremes. But unlike Ichiro, Matsui’s game is quintessentially American. Matsui is slow, hobbled by knee injuries that have limited him to the DH spot. He is patient, coaxing deep pitch counts from opposing hurlers; in fact, Matsui saw just shy of 4 pitches per plate appearance last year, rarely swung at balls outside of the strike zone, and coaxed 64 walks. And he hits for good power, sporting a .509 slugging percentage and 28 homers last year. His game has always been at clash with the stereotypical Japanese brand of baseball, which has emphasized defense, “fundamentals,” putting the ball in play, and one-run strategies.

Indeed, aside from the throng of Japanese reporters that follow Matsui wherever he goes, there is nothing really to discern him from Raul Ibanez, Pat Burrell, or Brad Hawpe, other defensively challenged outfielders who combine good power with decent on base skills. While there is no player like Ichiro, there are a dozen like Matsui scattered around Major League Baseball.

Like Sapporo, the only appeal that Matsui seems to have over these others is his marketability, stemming from his status as a prominent representative of another culture, living in our midst, and from his status in that home culture. But, like Sapporo, seemingly every other thing about him and his game is so damn pedestrian.

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