Fiction   Essays   Poetry  The Ten On Baseball Chapbooks In Memory

Jeff Beresford-Howe

On Cancelling Japan

It's not like Bud Selig had a choice.

Like everyone else, the commissioner of baseball has watched helplessly as the world confronts a war-prone nation rife with a fierce brand of religious fundamentalism, heedless of diplomatic norms, governed by an unelected leader and in possession of weapons of mass destruction which it sells on the open market and which it periodically threatens to use.

Faced with all that and a war too, Bud Selig announced the inevitable: that he had no choice but to cancel the baseball's season opening games in the United States.

"Frankly, we just don't think our players should have to work in an outlaw country," Selig told a scattered gathering of reporters and shoppers at his Milwaukee used-car dealership. "We have a good relationship with our business partner in New York -- frankly, he's a prince of a guy -- and frankly, every time I use the word 'frankly,' I'm lying through my crooked, yellow teeth."

"But I have a higher obligation. Frankly, to the children. So I've decided to move all major league games this year to Canada, Japan and Puerto Rico, which I know is sort of part of the United States but is really our friendly brown neighbor to the south. We hope that the families of the players, their children and their kindly grandpas and grandmas, and incidentally, frankly, the players, will be able to go about their business without the distraction of living in a country in which war criminals and torturers and Antonin Scalia run free.

"When things have returned to normal, we'll resume games in the United States, except maybe in the smaller cities that the Yankees are tired of subsidizing. Not counting Milwaukee."

Well, of course, that's not what happened at all.

Instead, Selig cancelled the season-opening games between Oakland and Seattle in Japan.

Over two hundred thousand tickets had been sold for the triumphant return to Tokyo of Ichiro, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who were going to suit up for the Seattle Mariners against probably the best team in professional baseball, the Oakland A's. These were important regular season games and an object of intense excitement and interest in Japan. Instead, they'll be played in front of a handful of people at the Coliseum in Oakland starting on the afternoon of April 3.

Why this is so is not clear. Selig mumbled some things about being apart from one's family "at this critical juncture," but the trip was only going to be a week. The A's, to pick one example, are going on four longer road trips this season.

The A's and Mariners were both going to charter planes, so I'm pretty sure airport security wasn't an issue. It's unlikely Yusef Bin-Hijacker was going to slip in unnoticed on the passenger manifest next to Barry Zito and Miguel Tejada.

And, as Ichiro pointed out, Japan -- a country which essentially has no Muslim population or immigration at all, and which hasn't invaded anybody, Muslim or otherwise, for sixty years -- is, if anything, safer than the United States.

"You can't just open the door and be in Japan," Ichiro told the Associated Press. "You have to take the logistics into account. Japan is probably the safer place..."

Some A's and Mariners had expressed reservations about the trip, but that wasn't about security, it was about inconvenience, the brutal time change in particular. Japan, after all, isn't exactly your basic Dallas-Kansas City-Minneapolis road trip. Others, like first baseman Scott Hatteberg and outfielder Terrence Long of the A's, take a broader view.

"I'm upset, but what can I do?" Long told the A's Web site. "I was looking forward to going. I think everybody was. Not a lot of people get this opportunity. I know I may not get a chance to go there again."

So why is Terrence Long going to have to lump it? It's hard to know, because Selig has something very much in common with his former business partner, the president: while he always has glib, if constantly shifting public justifications for what he does, they're rarely, if ever, in alignment with his private motivations.

My best guess is that Selig is not unlike the president in another way. He is -- and there's no friendly way to put this -- intellectually and experientially overmatched. At his rarified level, he meets people every day who are widely traveled, smarter than he is, more accomplished and more thoughtful.

Also like the president, Selig is confronting unexpected, complex situations. He must think he's landed in the middle of some sort of Biblical plague what with all the bizarre situations baseball has faced in the last couple of years: labor problems, player deaths, the ubiquity of performance-enhancing drugs, the threat of terrorism, the collapse of competitive balance, scandalous ghost-written memoirs, franchise insolvency, the All-Star fiasco, and god knows what else.

Faced with all this, Selig, afraid of showing his limitations, reaches out for advice only from a close, almost hermetically sealed group of like-thinking friends and advisors. He chooses a course of action, always recoiling from ambiguity or subtlety. He doesn't stray from that course, even if it leads to disaster, even if it's insulting to those with whom he must build relationships. His ego -- "hey, if these guys are so smart, how come they work for me?" -- keeps him from noticing or caring how badly it's all working out. It is the certitude of the insecure.

That insecurity is what led him, I think, to make his decision on Japan. There's no rational reason for cancelling the games in Tokyo, but you can hear in the wind the whispers of those advisors: "Hey, Bud, what could go right? Nothing happens, people forget about it faster than you can say Opening Day. But good god, it's Japan. So far away. If it does go wrong, you'll be responsible forever. And fuck our Japanese partners who put up all that money for the games. They're Japanese. It doesn't matter."

On a certain level, Selig and his advisor are probably right. Looking at it strictly from their own, financial perspective -- not, say, from the perspective of the people in Tokyo who've already put up millions for the games that they'll never get back -- the Japan deal doesn't matter as much as extorting money from the next city stupid enough to build a stadium for major league baseball, or finding owners for the Montreal Expos and Los Angeles Dodgers and Anaheim Angels and Oakland A's and whoever else is up for sale this week. Or making sure the Milwaukee Brewers get their subsidy check from the New York Yankees on time.

But you'd like to think that somehow Selig would look at the bigger picture every once in a while. Like not projecting a picture of a cowardly America, willing to abandon our business or political partners not in the face of a threat, but the shadow of a threat.

©2003 by Jeff Beresford-Howe

Jeff Beresford-Howe is a writer living in Oakland. Read more of his work in the Slow Trains essays archive.

  Home Contributors Past Issues Search   Links  Guidelines About Us


Subscribe to the Slow Trains newsletter