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Editor's Notebook: The Boys & Girls of Summer Could Use Some Coaching on the Essence of the Game

Peggy Boyer Long
WUIS/Illinois Issues

"At the end of the day, do people really care whether or not the Cubs win in 14 innings or 9 innings?" Blagojevich told reporters today. "It's whether they win or lose." Posted August 1 by Monique Garcia Clout Street Chicago Tribune Web Edition

Ah, baseball. That most American of pastimes. But these days some of the better players are imports.

Robert Kuhn McGregor calls one to mind this month in his essay on why baseball matters. Hideki Matsui came to America from Japan to play for the New York Yankees, where he has distinguished himself for powerful hitting. But, more to the point, he has become known for his professional dignity and personal compassion. 

In a world of oversized egos, Matsui is a standout. "More than a good player," McGregor writes, "Matsui is a good man."

Japanese novelist Shizuka Ijuin profiles this quality of character in his book Hideki Matsui: Sportsmanship, Modesty, and the Art of the Home Run, which was published this year. 

Matsui, the best hitter in his Japanese league before debuting in Yankee Stadium in 2003, tells Ijuin his favorite major-league batter is Mickey Mantle. But Ijuin talked with Joe Torre, the legendary manager of the Yankees (and former MVP hitter for the St. Louis Cardinals) to try to find out what makes Matsui different from other players. Matsui, Torre realized, "didn't just hit with power; he hit with intelligence and judgment."

Torre, Ijuin adds, saw in Matsui "a fine all-around athlete, a man who understood the essence of baseball."

This prompts Ijuin to ponder the meaning of baseball. His conclusion?

"More than the most impressive personal record, more than a spectacular, awe-inspiring play, the genius of baseball lies in the fact that winning requires every player to do his best, not for himself and his place in the record books, but for the optimal efficiency of the machine of which he is a part." 

It is, he writes, "a delightful paradox of the game" that a team with no superstars but a roster of professionals, all playing at their peak, can become the better team. "In baseball, at least ideally, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the wise player will understand that and seek to find his place in the whole."

What Matsui also understands is that, in the course of any season, there are wins and losses, but the losses almost always offer the more valuable lessons. His wisdom about the game, and life, is what makes Matsui different. 

Ijuin has a larger point to make: We can learn something from the game of baseball about how powerful people and powerful governments relate to one another. "Modesty is one important virtue that can stop the abuse of power."

Now there's a thought. The political players in this long, long summer at the Statehouse might reflect on the meaning of governance as they wind up for their October playoffs. The boys and girls of summer, all of us, could use some coaching on the essence of the game from a world-class athlete who comes from the other side of the globe. 

Having endured an over-long season of verbal shoving matches and legal fisticuffs, those of us in the stands should be forgiven as we suppress an impulse to yell, "Throw 'em outta the game." 

But our two columnists, Bethany Jaeger and Charles N. Wheeler III, tell us this month what's really at stake. And McGregor, as always, takes the philosophical view. Ijuin compares Matsui to the samurai. McGregor picks up on that and leaves us with a final thought. 

"Warriors do not play frivolous games, or at least they do not play them frivolously.

"Always remember that." 

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, October 2007

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