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 PAST ISSUES
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541: Developmentally challenged

By Kyle Sisler, as told to Louie Diaz Jr.

Hits of yesteryear

For one Tokyo expat, Ichiro's groundbreaking season holds deeper meaning

When I was 10 years old baseball consumed my life. I went to baseball camp during the summer, practiced in my garage in the winter, and collected baseball cards in my spare time.

One day after a Little League game, I went over to my teammate's house to check out his "Legends of the Game" card collection. While going through a pile I noticed a card with the name George Sisler. It struck me instantly because I had never met anyone else outside my immediate family with the same last name.

I borrowed the card and showed it to my father, who glanced at it indifferently. Undeterred, I then showed it to my grandfather, who took one long, appreciative look at my new prized possession. For the first time in my life, I would discover the baseball lineage running through my blood. It all started with a story from my grandfather.

Kyle Sisler is an English teacher living in Tokyo

George Sisler, at the time, held the all-time record for most hits in a season (until a certain player named Ichiro Suzuki broke it), and it turns out he was my grandpa's cousin. George Sisler's son, Dick, also made it to the Major Leagues, along with George's grandson, Dave. To know that somewhere down the family tree, baseball talent ran long and deep, I instantly became obsessed with the Major League Sisler clan.

During this time my grandfather also told me stories about Japan, which he saw when he was in the army and stationed near Tokyo for a year. He told stories about the kind and polite people, about rivers that turned into colorful rainbows as women washed silk by the banks, about friends he made, about the coldest night of his life in the mountains of Kumagaya, about his long and turbulent journey across the mighty Pacific.

Fourteen years later, I find myself once again connected to the George Sisler name and to my grandfather's treasured yarns of Japan.
In the middle of my yearlong contract to teach English in Tokyo, Ichiro made an incredible run at old George's record that had stood for more than 80 years. Japan was swept away by the Ichiro hits countdown like a typhoon.

As Ichiro got closer and closer, and eventually surpassed George, I couldn't help but recall the fond memories of growing up in a small, southern Ohio town called Lucasville (population 2,000); of the times I would play baseball every day; and of the day-long trips me and my dad would take looking for George Sisler baseball cards.

We would go into small shops-shops inside somebody's house, shops that were just a hole in the wall-and the proprietor would have to pull out old boxes from the back room covered in dust to scour cards from the '30s everyone else had forgotten. I remember how three years and about 40 baseball shops and card shows later, we would only find two George Sislers. But I remember the particulars: a faded 1916 Boston Score edition. First base. Throws and bats left. Born in Manchester, Ohio. Played for the St. Louis Browns. Batted over .400 twice.

I also remember the stories of George from my grandfather, stories about his sharp eye and his quick bat; about him being a "spray hitter" (who hit to all parts of the field), which is very similar to Ichiro's style.

I also remember the time my dad and I concocted a plan to have the family vacation at the same time as a huge baseball card show in Florida. The trip had the auspices of "Florida getaway," when secretly its purpose was to find more George Sisler baseball cards. It was a golden idea because it was on this "vacation" that we found the second card.

Now, while teaching, I bring up my family name and history with pride. I tell stories about how there are only about 40 Sisler families in the whole of US, about how I got some George Sisler blood in me. Students react with the regular shock and disbelief. But I try to push it a little further, going into a spiel about how it was much harder to collect 257 hits in George's era, and that there were fewer at-bats back in the day. This usually starts an argument, as Ichiro is naturally the Japanese favorite. (It is, however, a great way to get the students debating.)

In one way I felt a little disappointed that the record would be broken, but at the same time it felt nice that old George Sisler was getting all the attention and that the incomparable Ichiro was the player breaking it. It's good to know that George would not be as anonymous and rare as his baseball cards. He would be in the public consciousness, and people would realize what a great player he was, in large part thanks to Ichiro. Knowing this felt good, especially being in Tokyo to experience it. It kind of completes grandpa's stories, tying both of them into one neat knot of baseball and Japan.

Louie Diaz Jr. is a freelance writer currently living in Tokyo.


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