There is poetry in repetition, and repetition in poetry, and poetition in repeatery. In their mystical, reptilian brain-type ways, rhyme and verse and meter build and release tension, create and demolish expectation, and generally provide the aesthetic infrastructure that enables poetry and music to variously melt our insides and set fire to our brain stems. There’s no point in offering an example. Just think of the scariest or the most exhilarating aesthetic experience you’ve ever had, and it’s likely that it either a) repeated the best part or a variation over and over or b) established repetition and then sent it spinning. (I’m not scholar of poetry or music enough to go much farther than that, and even in this generalization I’m working on instinct).
All of that to say: I watched Ichiro play the other night, at Safeco Field.
Ichiro’s been much in the news in the last week or so, for cracking 2,000 hits, for doing it quickly, and for breaking Wee Willie Keeler’s record eight consecutive seasons with 200 hits. These are records that bring a word to mind: consistency, ie. doing something very well for a very long time. It’s marvelous, but the word that interests me more for the sake of having watched him play the other day and for this post is: repetition. They’re two words with much different implications, but they’re also co-dependent.
Repetition means doing the same thing over and over. Consistency means successfully pulling something off again and again. Repetition: Ichiro does the same thing before every pitch. Constistency: Ichiro gets a hit 35% of the time, but doesn’t get a hit 65% of the time. More than any other player, Ichiro gives the impression that hitting with such consistency, ie. getting a hit 35% of the time, would be impossible without repeating the the same ritual 100% of the time. Repetition is the platinum setting upon which the jewel of his consistency is mounted.
So yes, there you have it, Ichiro has these rituals that he repeats over and over again. So why is this important, or why, rather, is it satisfying to watch?
For one, I think, it’s the style that Ichiro lends to his rituals. For most other players, you’d call them tics. But Ichiro adds something, a certain theatrical bent, to suggest his awareness of the importance of the ritual itself as a means to the end. He brings attention to the act of preparing for a pitch. A word that pops up in the definition of the word ritual is ceremony. In modern parlance, ritual has a more widely applicable connotation–everyone’s got their ritual, whether it’s a cup of coffee in the morning or the way a Little Leaguer wears his stirrups–while ceremony still carries with it the banner of history, of communal import and procedure. All of this to say that Ichiro’s repetitive acts have the flavor of ceremony, of fulfilling the necessary requirements to move forward, recalling the lessons of his youth and of seasons and weeks and days past. Through all of the games over all those years, the thread that sews them altogether is that ritual:
the pre-pitch motion in which he raises the bat in his right hand to the pitcher, pointing in the same direction with all five fingers of his left hand, before dropping the bat and bringing it around and up to his ear.
Watching all of this go down in person is what I dig. On TV, you might catch a glimpse of his at-bat ritual before the camera cuts to the Bud Light trivia question or the roving reporter in the stands. But in person, it’s unedited Ichiro, in real-time. More than the edited version, one can watch Ichiro in his full state of Being. There is the pre-pitch ritual, but there is also the continuous stretching in funny crouches, the practice swings, and–this one was new to me–the exaggerated, Satchel Paige-like wind-up with high leg kick that he goes into with every warm-up throw in the outfield. While centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez lolligaggs his tosses with an air of boredom, Ichiro makes the boring act into an art form by constricting it, by placing a constraint around it and carrying it through to its extreme.
My baseball career was defined at all times by inconsistency. Not of performance, necessarily; I was great until about age 15. But I never threw the ball with the same arm angle, my batting stance changed every week, the height of my stirrups fluctuated wildly, etc. My style was to have no single style. This wasn’t by design, necessarily, but rather a matter of character. My handwriting, for example, is messy and it changes with the wind. Perhaps it’s this nature, my flapping, groundless personal story, that urges my fascination with Ichiro’s superhuman capacity to repeat and repeat. I am jealous of and amezed by perfectly uniform, utterly neat handwriting too. For me, that consistency is unattainable.
And then, of course, there is what Ichiro does between rituals, when the pitch is on the way and the ball in play. The rituals mark one side of the coin, and the other side is stamped with his improvisational skills, and his ability to stretch and contract with the demands of the present tense. The career of Turk Wendell taught us that a bunch of great rituals with feeble results doesn’t go nearly as far. But watching the two skills in concert, the repetition and the consistency, is what makes baseball worth watching, even when the teams involved are long out of the race and the season is lost.
P.S. Ken Griffey, Jr., hit a home run in that game, too, but that’s another story.