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SSTN Interviews Andrew Forbes

SSTN: Today we are here with author Andrew Forbes. In addition to two published anthologies of short stories, Andrew is the author of The Only Way is the Steady Way: Baseball, Ichiro, and How We Watch the Game as well as an earlier collection of baseball writing, The Utility of Boredom. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.

Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News. It is great to have this discussion with you.

Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

To begin, please tell us how you became a baseball fan.

Nothing novel about this: my dad introduced me to the game. Blue Jays and Expos games on TV, whacking a tennis ball with a fat plastic bat, playing catch. My first big league game was Rangers at Blue Jays, a bright, sunny afternoon at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. We sat on the third base side. Everything seemed outsized: the field, the stands, the crowd, the train we took to get there. Pretty soon the obsession grew: card collecting; Sports Illustrated; NBC’s Game of the Week. Once I read WP Kinsella’s books I was a full-blown baseball nerd. My parents gave me Total Baseball for Christmas one year — an absolute doorstop of a book of stats, edited by John Thorn and Pete Palmer — and I was done for. I wanted all the minutiae, all the obscure facts, all the stories. When the Blue Jays won back-to-back in 1992-93 it felt like I’d won the World Series. I haven’t looked back.

Your baseball book The Only Way is the Steady Way, is a unique book. Please tell us about it.

It’s not a biography of Ichiro, but rather a collection of essays concerned with the ways in which we integrate baseball into our lives, the lessons we take from it, the ways it informs our worldview. In large part I use Ichiro to illustrate these things, but I also cast my gaze toward different players: Tris Speaker, Pedro Guerrero, Yordan Alvarez, Ken Griffey, Jr., Gaylord Perry, and so on. Beyond that I write about Youtube, t-ball, souvenirs, the internet, bourbon, aging, parenthood, astronomy, and John Prine.

Ichiro Suzuki is a favorite player of all-time in our home. Please tell us how you decided to write a book focusing on Ichiro. What drew you to him in particular?

My first book featured a piece about Ichiro, which was unavoidable; he was my favorite player. But when, in 2018, he returned to the Mariners, then in May announced he’d be stepping away from playing (without officially retiring) I realized that I wasn’t done with him. I still needed to write about him. As for why he, in particular, captured my attention, it has everything to do with the fact that he was such a unique player, completely sui generis for his era. His rookie MLB season of 2001 coincided with Barry Bonds’ 73 HR outburst, which exemplified the gonzo ridiculousness of the modern game, and yet here was Ichiro, quietly amassing base hits, stealing bases, beating out ground balls, making laser-accurate throws from right field. He was like a fragment of the Dead Ball Era resurrected in the midst of the most homer-happy period in baseball history. I loved that. As he aged I came to appreciate his consistent, unwavering approach to the game. He prepared, he showed up without fail, he played his game, and he was successful on those terms. What’s not to love?

Can you share a particular Ichiro story that helps to make clear what a special ballplayer he was?

One of the things I love about Ichiro is that his longevity and consistency act to sort of flatten out individual highlights — does that make sense? — so that what you’re left with is less a smattering of Big Moments and more a sense that this player was dogged and incorrigible and excellent in the long term. He just kept going! That said, there were definitely many brilliant moments. You want just one? How about the story from his first spring training with Seattle, when Ichiro was facing a lot of doubt, a lot of people assuming his accomplishments in Japan didn’t mean he’d be able to hit Major League pitching. All spring long he’d been slapping balls to the opposite field, so Lou Piniella, who was managing the Mariners then, started to worry the doubters were right, that Ichiro couldn’t catch up to American heat. Piniella indicated to Ichiro that he’d like to see him try to pull the ball. The next Cactus League game Ichiro stepped up and turned on a ball, smacking a home run into the bullpen in right field. As he rounded the bases he shouted to Piniella, “Happy now?”

Please share with us a little about your fiction writing as well.

Some days I think I’m a fiction writer who also writes about baseball, while other days I’m convinced that I’m a baseball writer who dabbles in fiction. Whatever the case, I’ve published two collections of literary short stories, What You Need and Lands and Forests, and I suspect (hope?) there will be more. So far my publisher, the scrappy and amazing Invisible Publishing, has stuck with me whether I have handed them a baseball book or a fiction book, and I’m grateful for that. Broadly speaking, fiction happens when the real world facts become narratively inconvenient to me, so I start making stuff up. I haven’t really written baseball fiction yet because I don’t think I could dream up a story as incredible or compelling as the real stories baseball continually provides us.

Do you have more works coming?

I had the chance to contribute a chapter to a SABR collection steered by Robert Fitts about Major League teams touring Japan. I did a deep dive on the Detroit Tigers’ 1962 excursion. That should be out later in 2022. I’m also working on some new fiction, and there’s more baseball material germinating, too. I won’t say more than that because I have strong feelings, maybe even a superstition, about answering these sorts of questions too specifically.

Why, do you believe, are people so drawn to baseball and its stories, legends, and people?

For all the reasons elucidated by writers far better than me, across many, many decades. It’s all there: childhood, green grass and red dirt, heroes, villains, underdogs, voices on the radio, tradition and revolution, improbable victory, gut-punch defeat. A game every day from spring until autumn: anything so closely tied to summer (it’s -30 where I sit as I type this, snow everywhere) can’t help but smack of magic. And it’s given us so much to celebrate. It’s spoiled us. Taught us that the impossible infrequently becomes possible.

There’s a lot of talk about baseball needing to be “fixed.” Is baseball broken? If you were the Commissioner of Baseball what change(s) if any would you make to the current game?

Maybe not broken, but it could use a tune up. If I was Commissioner, that would mean that the current guy was looking for another job, so we’re already coming out ahead. First things first: extra innings are extra innings. Play until the thing is settled, without putting a ghostrunner on second. Reaffirm the sanctity of the respective leagues: rebalance them by putting an American League team in Montreal, a National League team in Nashville, or Portland, or Mexico City, and vastly reduce the amount of interleague play. Remember how great it was when the teams in the World Series hadn’t faced each other all year? The DH thing is likely settled, and I can live with its universal application, though I love watching pitchers flail at bad pitches and pop out to the catcher on bunt attempts. Move the fences out. Play a couple of World Series games during the day. Take the manufacturers’ logos off the caps and jerseys and never, under any circumstances, permit advertising on uniforms. Get rid of instant replay and stop the robo-ump in its tracks; on that field the crew chief should be the ultimate arbiter, and human fallibility is just one of the ragged edges that make the game interesting. I could go on, but it will suffice to say that my proposed changes would not increase revenue, suddenly make the game more popular than the NFL, or appeal to the demographics that the current brain trust are trying so desperately to court. I choose to interpret your question as an invitation to make baseball over into the game I’d most like to see.

In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?

Has anyone written the definitive Miller Huggins biography? I’d love to read that. In the non-Yankee category, I’m so interested in all the new scholarship on the Negro Leagues, and I’d like to see books on some of those players and personalities whose biographies haven’t been written yet: Rube Foster, Martin Dihigo, Biz Mackey, etc. etc.

In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?

In person? Ichiro is the easy answer, but other than him the best player I ever saw was Tony Gwynn, who collected his 3,000th hit in Montreal. Amazing.

Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…

What was your favorite baseball team growing up?

Blue Jays were #1, with Expos as 1A.

Who was your favorite player?

The first player I ever imitated was Tony Fernandez (diving stops, submarine throws to first). Then I wanted to be Jesse Barfield. When Ken Griffey, Jr. burst on the scene I remember having the feeling that we were being given the chance to watch the best player in history.

What is your most prized collectible?

Oh, that’s tough. It changes, but today I’ll go with the M’s cap I bought at Safeco in August, 2001, the first time I saw Ichiro.

Who is your favorite musical group or artist?

John Coltrane.

What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll say a ballpark hotdog. With a cold beer.

Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –

This has been fun!

Thanks again for having me. It’s great to have a reason to think about baseball in the dead of winter. I only hope we get a full season to enjoy, free of labor interruption. And when baseball does return I look forward to watching the Blue Jays win the AL East.

Andrew, this has been a lot of fun. Good luck to the Blue Jays. (But you know I’ll be rooting hard for the Yankees.) Please keep in touch.


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