Japanglicize v. (Juh-PANG-gluh-sahyz): to merge Japanese culture with that of English culture, ultimately enhancing both
I associate pasta with Sunday Night Football, hotdogs with baseball, Chinese food with rainy weather, and sushi with work. Those little white rice rolls, seaweed soup, and the green paste that masquerades as guacamole, conjure images of the suit-wearing, Blackberry-toting echelon of corporate America. Whenever a coworker suggests expensing lunch, I beg for Chipotle. But somehow I always get overruled and end up with an $8.95 lunch special on my desk (a "Bento Box," as it’s called), and a growling stomach for the rest of the day. I don’t get what the big attraction is. And the chopsticks not only strike me as pretentious, but it also just seems like a lot of effort for something that sates my hunger about as much as Pez. Which is probably why I haven’t jumped on board the MLB Japanese bandwagon yet. I love eating. I hate when my food is trendier than me. I love baseball. I hate anything that detracts from the basic pleasures of a peanuts-and-cracker-jacks game. Like the 1994 strike, putting Spiderman ads on bases, and people who wear basketball jerseys to the ballparks.
I know the infiltration of Japanese players is partly a way to diversify the sport and partly a way to optimize the talent. Fine. The problem is that the obsession with Japanese prospects is spotlighted to the point of distraction. I don’t care if my coworkers want to eulogize the virtues of Japanese cuisine, as long it’s because they actually LIKE eating slimy wax and not because of what it connotes. For example, Kei Igawa coming in after Torre grounded him, to let up 1 hit in 5 innings= entertainment. ESPN’s inane insistence on broadcasting excerpts of the game in Japanese= maddening. (I grumbled to my coworker, "What the hell. It’s not like they do the games in…um…Panaman?" "Uh, Spanish? Yes. Yes, they do, actually." "Whatever.")
The paradox is that I love the Japanese players. I love when coaches go to the mound to talk to Japanese pitchers. I love the fact Ichiro’s line about facing Matsuzaka involves invoking the dormant fire in the innermost recesses of his soul. (Even better, the fact that Matsuzaka is essentially like, "Yep, sounds about right.") And I love the fact all of them can theoretically argue balls and strikes, and for all the ump knows, they’re saying, "I have molecules of thunderous grapes." But none of them ever do.
So obviously the only way to come to terms with my love-hate relationship was to identify my favorite Japanese athletes with my least favorite cuisine.
Hideki Matsui, OF/Yankees (California roll: avocado, crab, rice, sesame seeds)
The only thing I ever order when my Mexican takeout suggestion goes unnoted at lunchtime. Its appeal resides in the fact that it’s the most non-sushi thing on the menu. I like it because its palatable taste makes me forget that it’s sushi. Furthermore, the California roll contributed to sushi’s growing popularity in the United States by easing diners into more exotic sushi options. (Which is something I learned from a book called "The sushification of America." You heard me.) Just like Hideki eased baseball fans in more adventurous Japanese options.
Kaz Matsui, 2B/Rockies (Tempura roll: deep-fried vegetables or seafood, rice)
The melba toast of sushi. It’s like a diluted version of the big headliners, such as the Spider roll or the Dragon roll. It’s like what Eli is to Peyton, what D. Wright is to A-rod, or what "Space Jam" is to "Hoosiers." No offense to Kaz, who, in all fairness, is having a decent start to the season, but when he’s the second Matsui to start whipping around the bases, the comparisons invariably start sprouting. If "Teen Wolf Too" taught us anything, it’s that the original always trumps the sequel.
Ichiro Suzuki, OF/Mariners (Unagi: fresh water eel)
Generally accepted as one of the most delicious fish ever tasted. It’s versatile and always tasty no matter how it’s served. The Japanese love it not only for its flavor but for the stamina it provides. (I’m not making this up.) Everyone loves it, which makes me skeptical. I just traded him off my fantasy team for B.J. Upton and Scott Linebrink, and the tradee changed his avatar smack talk to "THE RICH GET RICHER!" I frankly don’t see what the big deal is. Garret Atkins and Willy Taveras posted stats nearly identical to Ichiro last year, give or take. Plus, well, it’s eel.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, SP/Red Sox (Fugu: poisonous blowfish)
The blowfish is so poisonous that minimal amounts of venom are enough to kill a fat person in less than half an hour. If not prepared correctly, you’ll most likely die from consuming it. It’s very expensive, has potentially lethal side effects, and is by most people considered to have a very weak taste. It’s one of those things people oddly determine is "something they have to do before they die." (Funny, because most of the things on lists like those actually may be the last thing you do before you die.) Fugu is like those carnival games where you pay $5 a basketball to shoot for a hoop 80 feet away with a rim that might as well be one of J. Lo’s earrings. And after spending roughly $90, you finally get one in, and you win a hot pink stuffed snake that will probably give you a rash before you make it back to the Funnel Cake stand. OR it’s like spending $52 million for a pitcher who’s never pitched in America, hoping that his exotic allure will only be eclipsed by his talent. For 6 years.
Hideki Okajima, RP/Red Sox (Umekyu: cucumber, plum paste, rice)
Nothing incredibly distinctive beyond its pungent flavor. You’re supposed to eat this last because the taste is so strong. It’s as if sushi chefs concocted this weirdness (plum paste? Seriously?), and then they all looked at each other like, "Umm, what are we supposed to do with this? Just tack it on end of meal?" And then it worked. I have the similar head-scratching reaction when I see a closer come in who pitches with his eyes closed.
Kenji Johjima, C/Mariners (Waloo: Hawaiian angel fish)
Complex flavor, tender consistency, no suprises. Unassailably good. It’s like a well-played spinach & artichoke dip. So many key benefits: the warm cheese, the kick of the artichoke, the all-important spinach texture. Such a strong choice without getting the hype it warrants. This guy’s right up there with Hideki Matsui. He’s assertive yet respectful. I want to have 50 babies just like him.
Takashi Saito, RP/Dodgers (Ankimomaki: Monkfish liver pate in a roll garnished with different types of seaweed)
Colorful and unusual, not something you’ll find on any sushi take-out menu. Talk about a hidden gem. He’s like the John Reilly of closers, who holds the patent on indispensable supporting roles. But his raw talent is obscured by actors like Ben Affleck, who leverage their supporting roles into leading ones just because they have more bells and whistles. You know that closer on the Red Sox who people are gratuitously comparing to Rivera? His stats are, for all intents and purposes, IDENTICAL to this monkfish. Saito unfortunately slips under the radar unless you seek him out.
So Taguchi, OF/Cardinals (Tekkamaki: Tuna and rice)
"Tekka" is the word for gambling parlors in Japan, where the snack originated as a quick, hand-held food that could be eaten at the gaming table, making it the Japanese version of our sandwich. Indeed, I am going somewhere with this. Taguchi, a former teammate of Ichiro while playing for the Orix Blue Wave, will never ignite the same type of blockbuster hype that saturates the Seattle Mariners outfielder. Ichiro’s career in Japan boasted a .353 average, while Taguchi’s, .279. Just like tekkamaki, Taguchi was the equivalent of a ham and cheese Hot Pocket: gets the job done, some unique value, but not as rich and satisfying as an actual entrée. Then Taguchi/Tekkamaki comes to the United States, and it’s trendy and cool; the Texas Hold `Em crowd that used to dine on them have been replaced with high-powered executives. The Japanese connotations associated with unagi (Ichiro) and tekkamaki have dissolved-the only remaining difference between the two now? The tuna’s got World Series bling.
Kei Igawa, SP/Yankees (goldfish)
Just because goldfish is raw fish does not make it sushi. Just because the Yankees’ newest answer to Jared Wright is from Japan does not make him a pitcher. [Here’s the problem. Igawa pitched a gem last weekend against Boston–it was one of those games where there should have been an over/under line on the number of times the announcer asserted, "But the REAL story of this game is the breakout performance of…" Despite that, I’m not convinced. Yes, I desperately hope I’m wrong and that he finishes 2007 with 20 wins, but if it came down to it, I’d want Phil Hughes on the mound instead–the American equivalent of a peanut embryo: a pitcher who needs a fake I.D. if he wants to celebrate a win.]
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Sometimes I wonder how Japan feels about us stealing all their greats. The New Zealand All Blacks rugby team has some kind of rule that that if a player leaves for a high-paying team overseas, then he can never come back to play in NZ. Which is hysterical because it’s like a dude yelling after his girlfriend, "FINE! Go be with Mr. Look-at-me-I’m-an-investment-banker! Just don’t come crawling back to me when you realize he sucks at life!" It’s funny how the Yankees so often get accused of "buying their team," but isn’t that what the MLB is doing to Japan?
As for Japan’s cuisine, not only are we stealing their athletic powerhouses, but chains like Krispy Kreme, McDonald’s, and Cold Stone Creamery are becoming firmly entrenched on Japanese soil, preying on the fact that, no matter how cute they look, rice rolls and slabs of gills do NOT fill up a normal human being. Japan must feel like Milton in "Office Space":
Japan MLB: "Excuse me, I believe you have my baseball players."
US MLB: "Yeahhhh, um about those all-stars, we’re gonna need to bring them over HERE instead of keeping them over THERE. That would be terrific."
Japan MLB: "But..but..but..b-b-but…"
US MLB: "Ooh, yeah, and uh, we’re just gonna go ahead and take your nutritionally sound delicacies and leave our growing cholesterol problems with you, mmkay? Grreeeattt…"
And as for myself, I do feel somewhat vindicated, now having spent more time reading about sushi than I’ll ever spend eating it. If nothing else, I’ve learned enough about the scope of the raw fish market that I can finally break ground on my "Now Su-shi it, Now Shu-don’t" restaurant franchise.
See, Major League Baseball doesn’t need publicity any more than I need a lifetime subscription to Highlights for Children. It’ll be around forever. So while the Asian imports may in fact provide broadcasts with a new angle when the Sox-NY rivalry isn’t burgeoning through, it’s just an added bonus. The bottom line: a baseball field blurs cultural delineations. The celebration of Japanese culture in baseball just further propels the sport into greatness. Integrating Japanese players into baseball maximizes the talent, heightening the competitive spirit that has fueled the game for the last century. It’s hard to be anything but wildly receptive of anything that bolsters baseball’s ever-expanding landscape.
And yet, be that as it may, on principle alone, I still will never embrace the corporate obsession with chopsticks-at-a-business-lunch. At least never the way I embrace the universal obsession with a hotdog-at-a-ball-game. Like baseball, nothing will ever be more satisfying.