About seven months before the 9/11 terror attacks, I was sitting in a restaurant in Tangiers when the owner, who knew I was a journalist, introduced me to a group of people at a table nearby. Turns out they were a group of college journalism professors in Morocco, all out together for the evening. Since we all spoke French as a second language, we had an engaging conversation about world politics and America’s role in it. They were Muslim and had a natural curiosity about things from a Western perspective. We agreed on some things about U.S. geopolitcal strategy and I thought some of their views were outrageous on others. The content of the conversation is not important. What was, I still think, was the profound gulf between our views on things. It was a friendly conversation, but I still came away just a little distressed about the lack of understanding we had for where the other side was coming from. At least we tried that night.
Seven months later, everything changed.
Those who died at the World Trade Center and Pentagon that day did nothing wrong other than show up to work. They were innocents, killed by fanatics from a part of the world where fundamental differences exist between what we believe and practice here in the West and what they do. This isn’t a left wing/right wing thing, or a hawks-versus-doves argument. You can have your beliefs about American strategy on the international stage and buy into or discard what the critics say about it. I’m not here to debate that. Those who died, as I said, were victims of terrorists, not of politicians pushing a viewpoint.
But what cannot be argued is that those who inflicted the horrors that day had a deep-rooted hatred for our way of life here. A fundamental difference of opinion about how we go about things. And whether it’s rooted in anger borne of past actions by this country on the global front, or selfish power interests on their part, or maybe just a desire to force people to be as fanatical as they are about the things they believe, once again, the main theme here is that a serious gap exists between one side understanding the other.
And today, we mourn the victims of that gap. Because like it or not, those who died on Sept. 11, 2001 were victims of it. There’s nothing we can do to change that, or bring them back.
But we owe it to those victims to not stop trying to make the world a better place.
I’m not saying you do that by snuggling up to terrorists. Some fanatics can never be reasoned with. But each one of us does carry a responsibility to better understand the world around us. To try to identify with people who are not exactly the same as we are. You don’t have to agree with them. But for a moment, you put yourselves in their shoes and try to comprehend what they are feeling.
I don’t believe for an instant that we could have done that with those who crashed the planes on 9/11. They were too far gone. Too committed to their cause to want to sit down and listen to reason. But there are others in this world, different from us, who the gap can be bridged with. And we owe it to ourselves to try. Because the more gaps we can bridge, the more people we can forge an understanding with, the fewer enemies will be created. Think small steps.
The past few days, those of us following the Mariners have witnessed an intensified crush of media members from Japan descend on the baseball team to chronicle Ichiro’s every move as he seeks to become the first player in history to record nine 200-hit seasons. Some people are genuinely curious about why such a fuss is being raised about this in Japan. It’s different than what we’re used to over here, where we’ve had our share of superstar athletes both at home and abroad. We went gaga over Michael Phelps winning all those gold medals, but it still isn’t quite like what Japan is experiencing with an Ichiro hits record some fans here don’t think is all that big a deal.
But while we’ve all had our fun showing pictures of the media horde chronicling Ichiro’s every move, or joking about tripping over another Japanese photographer, some of the stuff I’ve been hearing and reading on the internet crosses the line between good-natured curiosity and amazement, and plain old mean-spiritedness, resentment and maybe even racism.
I’ve seen some not-so-nice cracks tinged with anti-Japanese sentiment and almost a mocking anger and a ridiculing of the level of interest shown for Ichiro in his native country.
And I think that’s a shame.
Because it’s a missed opportunity. A chance, interestingly enough, here on 9/11 for baseball fans in two countries to come together and celebrate what will be a remarkable sporting achievement. Not just that, but for us to better understand why the people in Japan are so enthusiastic about this record. Coming from Canada, perhaps it’s easier for me to understand why it’s so important to see someone from your homeland stack up well against those from the U.S. They play the best baseball in the world in MLB and the passionate fans in Japan know this. And so, when they see one of their own about to do something no other player from here has ever done, it provides tremendous pride on a national scale. And hope for any young baseball player from that country that they, too, can succeed on the biggest stage in the world.
We used to call it the American Dream. Perhaps we’ve all become a little too complacent. A little too numbed by success stories through mass media consumption that we generally can’t recognize the real deal anymore when it’s happening right before our eyes.
But let’s face it: the story of Ichiro is a true tale of unlikely success. Unlikely, because he’s going where no Japanese ballplayer has gone before. And the tens of millions of followers he has in Japan are living and breathing it because Ichiro is one of theirs. He reinforces the things about their way of life that they feel good about. And he’s showing that their own boundaries for success are not limited to within their country’s borders. That can be a remarkably liberating experience.
And there’s no reason to resent it.
Sure, I can understand some people would rather see an American own every record in baseball, but that simply is not going to continue to be the case in a sport going global. And seeing Ichiro surpass something only Lou Gehrig and Willie Keeler had done before him is not a reason for anger. It’s a celebration of the best trying to measure up against the best. Look at it this way: the fact that Japan is going crazy over what Ichiro is about to do tells you something about the respect people in that country hold for the baseball traditions over here. They are this happy about Ichiro because they know he is about to surpass names like Keeler and Gehrig.
If they thought our brand of baseball was bush-league, then they’d be yawning over this feat. The fact that they’ve had the opposite reaction is a sign of great respect.
It doesn’t mean they are going to Americanize baseball in Japan. That country is always going to be different from this one in how it goes about things. But that’s OK. There is nothing wrong with a little difference once you cross a border. As long as you take the time to better understand the differences, realize why they might be there, and accept why things elsewhere are not always the same as in your backyard.
That is why this Ichiro quest presents an opportunity for us that we should not let slide by.
We will spend today mourning those who died in the name of hatred and differences. And then, hopefully, tonight, when the Mariners take the field, we will seek out the common good we may share with people and cultures different from us and apply it to what we see happening on the field. And when we see dozens of Japanese media members tripping over themselves and their camera wires every time Ichiro goes to the dugout for a new bat, we will chuckle, yes, but also feel an immense sense of pride.
The pride that another nation of more than 100 million people can find our brand of baseball so compelling that it will stop everything else and hold its collective breath hoping that one of its own can measure up to our finest. Can finally gain a form of acceptance into our world.
And when you can see things from that viewpoint, everything else becomes easier.
It wasn’t too long ago that this country and Japan were engaged in arguably the most brutal war the planet has known. The only conflict ever settled through the deployment of nuclear weapons.
Now, all of Japan seems to care about the Mariners. Fans in both countries share a connection through this sport that would not have been possible six decades ago. The fans in Japan are following this team’s every move, cheering for one of its top players, the same No. 51 most of you enjoy rooting for on a daily basis. On a team managed by a guy of Japanese descent. When it comes to that, the borders crumble. The differences evaporate.
And on this sad day, when the tragic consequences of our differences with others are all too real, it gives us something to cling to.
It gives us hope.