Ichiro's Paradox

Time is running out on Ichiro's amazing baseball career. But time has never really mattered much in his case.
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[What exists] is now, all at once, one and continuous... Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike; nor is there any more or less of it in one place which might prevent it from holding together, but all is full of what is. 

— Parmenides

[S]ince you can think of a thing or speak of it at one time as well as another, whatever can be thought of or spoken of must exist at all times. Consequently there can be no change, since change consists in things coming into being or ceasing to be.

— Bertrand Russell

“When I came here to play, I didn’t know where I would be or where I wouldn’t be.”

—Ichiro Suzuki

Some two and a half millenia ago, Parmenides’ Eromenos went in on the pluralists, armed with intractable paradoxes crafted to expose flaws inherent in the philosophical notion of change.

Today, more than four decades after the birth of one of the greatest baseball players to ever step into a batter’s box, it appears that Zeno of Elea’s paradoxical illusion of motion has been solved. If you know baseball, you know where this is going.

Ichiro.

To call the Japanese-born NPB and MLB legend a phenomenon is to dramatically undersell him; he was at one point, early in his stateside career and still surprising fans with the weird intricacies of his brilliance, a phenom. Today, near the end of a long career, Ichiro simply and fascinatingly is.

There are ways to describe this, but nothing quite sufficient. The standard compliment of his stellar “technique” makes him sound like the means to a perfect mirepoix. It falls woefully short, but so does most everything else. Ichiro transcends the game. He defies compare. He is slender and small and still pretty unbelievably fast. Ichiro is elemental, singular in his approach and ability; his deliberate cultivation of a decades-long career has been artful and, in a way career arcs ordinarily are not, seemingly authored by him. This sounds like a lot, and is a lot, but this isn’t the hyperbolic adoration of a fan. Ichiro's greatness renders a knee-jerk recognition. No one really dislikes Ichiro, and no one quite understands him, either.

I, personally, have long suspected that at night, Ichiro returns to his feline form.

***

“There’s nobody like Ichiro in either league - now or ever. He exists strictly within his own world, playing a game 100 percent unfamiliar to everyone else.”  

—Bruce Jenkins in The San Francisco Chronicle, July 28, 2004.

 

A purist with the socks (up!) and a renegade with the jersey (first name!), there is an unmistakable something about Ichiro. He’s glorious and consistent and strange, at times toeing the surreal lip of robotics’ uncanny valley. The more I've watched him, and the more I analyzed his movements and read his interviews for this essay, the less sense he made.

The man is a study in shrieking dichotomy. He is new baseball, playing respectfully among a congregation busy worshipping the elder gods of America’s pastime. He’s rigid adherence to temporal discipline, and then he’s giggling on the floor, mid-tickle, courtesy of Ken Griffey Jr. He’s taking care of his own equipment, keeping his bats in chilled humidors, and then he’s squatting like a catcher in his chair during an interview. He is the ritual of constant stretching, performed in a very shiny, very baby-blue track suit.

Reading a list of his achievements could be a diagnostic test for ADD. Here are just a few:

He has ten consecutive 200-hit seasons, more than anyone else in the history of the game. More to the point, he has over 4,000 career hits at the highest levels of baseball. Only two other people have done this, Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. Even better: his 4000th hit came in his first at-bat of a game, in the first inning, off the notoriously hard-to-hit knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. (For a lot of happy dude hugs related to this moment, here’s the video.)

Only two players—Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays—have more Gold Gloves as an outfielder than he does.

On Opening Day in 2009, Ichiro grounded into a double play. He did not do this again the rest of the season.

Once, to sneak past the paparazzi for a date with his future wife, Ichiro’s teammates smuggled him out by rolling him in a carpet.

And, of course, Ichiro holds the single season MLB record for hits. Which is worth repeating: in a sport that tabulates and taxonomizes like no other, Ichiro is a fact: no one in baseball has ever had more hits in a single season than he. This is Ichiro's record, and what Ichiro does. He hits the fucking ball. He hits it where there isn’t someone to catch it. He slaps it gently or he swats it. He gives it a playful spank on its red-seamed panties and sends it giggling into an expanse of green, where it can frolic in the manicured poaceae, unguarded and unprepared for its arrival.

Ichiro doesn’t hold out for strikes, doesn’t stand motionless for balls, doesn’t wait. He swoops and leans and crouches, making contact all over the place. Baseball players generally don't do this. No one does it as weirdly or well as Ichiro has. You already know this, of course. It just bears mentioning.

***

Take a moment to examine the following. Please bear in mind that this is an actual adult person doing these things.

Exhibit A: This throw, which amounts to a strike thrown from right field to third. This is an impossible out. That was an impossible throw. Nothing in baseball is ever that perfect, nothing.

Exhibit B: Stealing a home run over a wall. (The strangled sound the announcer makes after he realizes what just happened tells you everything you need to know. The man sounded like he didn’t know it was physically possible to ejaculate and sob at the same time, and the tension in his throat is a dead give-away that there’s only so much excitement a body can handle.) See also: this impossible catch.

Exhibit C: “ICHIRO IS A NINJA

[Bonus Exhibit: Ichiro tells a joke]

In the first clip, the throw, Ichiro does what would be unconvincingly—no knock on the technology, it's just not a thing that happens—CGI’ed into the film later. In Exhibit B, the homerun theft, Ichiro climbs the wall, and then appears to hover at the top while waiting to catch the ball. In the last clip, I really have no fucking idea. That is some just some Matrix shit. I've got nothing on that.

***

If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless.

—Zeno’s paradox of the arrow, as recounted by Aristotle

 

The more footage I watched, the more certain I became about this: Ichiro Suzuki solved Zeno’s paradox of the arrow. Not with mathematical calculations, not with theory, not with a centimeters-thick thesis on the nature of reality. Instead it appears that, for all intents and purposes, he has solved this intractable exercise in reductio ad absurdum in a practical, physical manner.

The paradox of the arrow is an argument against motion. Zeno believed, as did his mentor Parmenides, that everything that is must already exist. In what is essentially the philosophical backbone of the first law of thermodynamics—or perhaps more broadly, the law of conservation of energy—this argues that if everything exists and is, nothing can be created or destroyed. From here, it holds that if everything is, change is an illusion.

Imagine an arrow in flight. Now, imagine one instant in that arrow's motion, as if you’d taken a picture of it. In the picture, in that instant, the arrow is not moving. It’s still, hung in the air like a bonus in an arcade game. Picture another instant. And another. In all of these instants of time, the arrow is still, hanging in the air.

For motion to occur, the arrow must change its position; for the arrow to change position, it has to move. But, for every instant of time, the arrow is at a fixed point. In that instant, no time elapses and the arrow cannot move. And if everything is motionless at every instant, and time is a construct that can be understood as being comprised of these instants, motion is impossible.

Except for Ichiro, for he has seemingly mastered the paradox of the arrow, solved the impossibility of motion. If, at any one point in time, there is no motion occurring, and this is simultaneously true as perceived sensory experience of motion, I posit that true acceptance of both realities could lead to an awareness unburdened by observable phenomena.

Here’s how I think this works out:

Say Ichiro has trained his brain to perceive the world both as impossible, constant stillness and the actual, continual motion we take for granted. In accepting the duality of time and motion, and by embracing both the theoretical stillness of pure logic and the observable motion of messy reality, Ichiro has disciplined his reactions and responses to these ideas such that he can fine-tune his perception of the passage of time. He can't master it, because that’s not an option. But he understands it in a unique way.

By focusing on specific time points, and seeing the stillness over the blur—the pause in the motion—Ichiro manipulates his own experience of the time dimension. After all, if all of time is happening simultaneously, and all of everything already exists, the slow-down approach to observable, linear chronology is something the human brain already can do. Ichiro's supreme gliding is just what it looks like when someone takes that ability and goes pro with it.

So, when Ichiro needs to lay down the perfect bunt, or drive the ball into the only open pocket of outfield, or hover in the air as he waits to snatch a homerun out of the box score, he utilizes his learned mastery of the paradoxical duality of time and motion. Like manipulating the tempo on a metronome, he sets the passage of time to best suit the cadence of his performance.

In light of this, Ichiro’s regimented scheduling makes perfect sense. For example, check out this snippet from Alh Bear’s, “Ichiro Suzuki: The Value of Repetition”:

Ichiro makes sure to follow a rigorous daily routine that he customizes for all the different possible game time starts. For example, on all days when the game starts at 7pm, he makes sure to wake up at 10-11am, stretch and lift at exactly 1:00pm, eat lunch at 1:40pm (the same every time: his wife’s Japanese green curry), leave at 2:00pm, and sets up his exercise schedule exactly the same up until game time.

Here, a clock serves as a type of quantified anchor, designed to keep Ichiro immersed in the speed of time that best approximates what other humans experience.

Another good example of this is Ichiro’s plate ritual, wherein he does a very specific series Jedi-like motions that culminate with a staredown, eyeing the pitcher around the core of his bat. The effectiveness of rhythms based in muscle memory might make for personalized space-time calibration, establishing a baseline perception of observable time and motion, so long as you have the discipline to tune your fleshy meat vehicle properly.

So maybe that’s not just gentle calisthenics going on when Ichiro is seen stretching in the outfield. Maybe instead, he’s maintaining a systematic awareness of motion and time via a deceptively simple series of internal checks and balances. Maybe knowing the process of tightening muscles is a reliable bio-clock by which to ascertain standard relativistic time-lapse.

I asked Damien Patrick Williams, MA, Instructor of Philosophy at Kennesaw State University to weigh in on my theory. (Full disclosure: Williams is, in fact, a good friend of mine. Over the years I’ve pretty regularly thrown screwball philosophy shit at him, and he’s always right there, ready to play with me in that aforementioned shit.)

I explained, in so many words, that I was making the argument that the core of Ichiro Suzuki’s brilliant successes in baseball stemmed from his mastery of Zeno’s paradox of the arrow. And he wrote back with this:

“One of the first, best investigations of Zeno's paradox I ever read was in Douglas R Hofstadter's 1979 opus, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. Throughout the book, Hofstadter uses Zeno's characters of Tortoise and Achilles to argue against their creator, ultimately arguing that modes of measurement and facts of reality aren't the same thing.

"Part of Hofstadter's interlude 'Contrafactus' uses a constantly shifting series of facts (one of which is a game of football turning into a game of baseball), to illustrate isomorphism and variance between levels and features of memory, conception, and perception, as experienced by Tortoise and Achilles (among others).

"My point in referencing all this is to argue that the interplay between how we see and conceive of the world and how we experience the reality of it depends in large part on what we can know and understand about it. If and when we can simultaneously see the iterative process of calculation and the continuous flow of changing experience, then we can more accurately account for and utilize both.

From the way you describe Ichiro Suzuki's technique, it seems like he may have found a way to do just that.”

Anyway, it's as good an explanation as any, and Ichiro isn't really in the business of telling. “It’s often said that I do," Ichiro told the Toronto Sun back in 2001, "but I do not run before I hit.”


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