Toshiki Okada’s ‘God Bless Baseball’ at FringeArts

The great Korean-Japanese pastime

Baseball is one of those trigger words that naturally makes my ears perk up, like “fire” or “sex” or “chicken parm.” I absolutely adore baseball. The history, the depth of stats, the debates about who was the best at what in which generation. If I talk to a stranger for 10 minutes, there’s a strong possibility I’m going to compare something in our conversation to baseball: It is a lens through which I’m able to make sense of life.

The actors displayed curiosity, boredom, fear, and anxiety without saying a word. (Illustration for BSR by Mike Jackson of alrightmike.com)

I wondered whether my history with baseball would help me understand Toshiki Okada’s God Bless Baseball, which is about the relationship between Korea and Japan as told through baseball. I was also a little nervous about writing a review: As an illustrator, I watch for visual elements that I can turn into a picture. This piece has plenty to work with to create an illustration, but would it provide a narrative?

That’s where things get dicey.

What’s it all about?

The show features two women and two men. The women are curious about the fundamentals of baseball. They wear their mitts on the wrong hands. They stare straight at the audience while fidgeting around as though they were playing right field in a Little League game. (Right field was so boring. I don’t remember anyone — anyone — hitting a ball out there in Little League. Right field is where you were sent to think about what flavor Slurpee you wanted after the game.) The first man comes out to explain the basics of the game to them, and the second man, Ichiro — Nippon-Professional-League-turned-Major-League-Baseball-superstar Ichiro Suzuki — comes out and begins miming at-bats.

He explains that baseball is an allegory for life. You leave home, try to stay safe out there, and celebrate with loved ones upon your return. His associations with baseball are positive. The game has been good to him, so — transitive property! — life has been good to him. Baseball has not necessarily been good to the other characters on stage, though. They associate the game with disappointment, drunkenness, economic downturn, anxiety, and isolation. While Ichiro sees baseball as a vehicle to greatness, the other characters see it as a vehicle for decline — or at the very least, a reason to ignore problems instead of addressing them.

An excruciating ordeal

Ichiro challenges the others to make their own way, but he comes off as a bully, repeating the phrases “It’s dangerous,” “Go back,” and “Use your imagination.” I keep asking myself, why he is repeating these three phrases? And why is he doing it so slowly, with long silences in between? And why does he continue to do it well after he’s made his point? This is excruciating.

Whenever people tell me they don’t care for baseball, they often point to its slow pace, and how much downtime there is between bouts of action, and how little actually happens from pitch to pitch. To those who don’t care for baseball, the pace of the game is excruciating. Hm.

But for everything that kept me fidgeting in my seat, I couldn’t stop thinking about it all once I was back on the street — or even a few days later. It was like when someone says they hate running, but love the feeling of having gone for a run. God Bless Baseball was difficult for me. Thinking about it in the days since, though, has been very rewarding, because it has allowed me to see baseball — and by extension, life — from the perspective of someone who absolutely hates baseball.

That has led me to thinking about why I enjoy drawing live performances — or why going to live performances is valuable, for those who don’t draw. Sometimes they’re the closest thing to actually walking in someone else’s shoes, and that’s a major win. I know I am not done with God Bless Baseball.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.