Kikuchi, Ohtani, And The Miko Kings – How To Transition From The Long Winter Of The NBA To The Bright Summer Of MLB

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 01: Shohei Ohtani #17 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitches in the bottom of the first inning of his Major League pitching debut against the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on April 1, 2018 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

With the NBA Finals finally getting underway, seeing the Warriors back in action might trigger painful memories of only two weeks ago for Blazer fans. While it was unquestionably a remarkable season for the Blazers, having advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000, the fact remains that the sweep at the hands of Warriors meant ten consecutive playoff game losses to the champs. While the Blazers tend to fare well against the Warriors in the regular season, when the intensity ramps up, playing for all the marbles, the Warriors have beaten them ten times in a row.

This has to be somewhat humbling. 

While Dame and CJ assuredly showed up, at various times, for this year’s playoff run, one wonders about the kind of missing pieces the Blazers need to fill in to possibly contend with the Warriors for however long the Warriors dynasty remains intact. Or, more interestingly, is it even possible to contend with this Warriors team as long as they are together, healthy, and defying age?

Various teams throughout the annals of NBA history never tasted glory simply because there was one team (one person even) perpetually in their way (for a couple examples: Jordan’s Bulls vs Utah Jazz; Sacramento Kings vs Shaq’s Lakers). Could this be the Blazers fate? 

The Rockets (the only Western Conference franchise that has suffered a worse playoff fate at the hands of these Warriors than the Blazers), seem convinced, almost neurotically, that they will ascend the summit. 

Each year over the last few years the Rockets have provided some mysterious reason or logic (from Harden to ownership) that they know how to beat the Warriors but simply haven’t been able to, or that they will somehow suddenly ascertain that elusive killer instinct. Here’s Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, directly after this year’s game 6 loss:

“I’m a fighter. That’s my culture. The longer I own this team, they’re gonna pick up more of my culture. We had ’em. We should have stepped on their throats the other night and cut their throats. It’s step on their throats, and let’s take it back to Houston and end it in six.”

Huh? The petulant nature of that franchise is almost unbearable, while the Blazers continually lose with grace and humility.

This makes the Raptors such an interesting case this year. Kyle Lowry, in his postgame interview after vanquishing the Bucks, essentially admitted that if LeBron were still in the East things might be different. 

When asked by John Schuhmann how much making the Finals meant to him after being the “cumulative” best team in the East for six years without ever having broken through in the playoffs (though how a team is “cumulatively” the best from a conference without ever reaching the Finals I’m unclear of), Lowry claimed he “ran into one guy, for awhile” and that “we were given an opportunity, he left.” 

This is a shocking admission, essentially acknowledging that had LeBron stayed in the East, Lowry may not have been sitting on that podium, even with Kawhi. Sometimes the mountain has to go away (you choose a different route), rather than climbing over its peak.

Hopefully the Dame and CJ era Blazers can avoid a “they played during the Warriors era” fate, and given the ever fickle nature of today’s NBA stars, who knows, maybe the Warriors’ core will disintegrate before the Blazers’ does. They will be gifted an opportunity, like Lowry’s Raptors, and perhaps take advantage.

In the meantime, however, for those of you looking for something to focus on besides tonight’s Game 1 Finals battle, may I suggest turning your attention to the baseball diamond, and watching Yusei Kikuchi face off against the Angels, and, most excitingly, Shohei Ohtani. 

Ohtani and Kikuchi both attended Hanamaki Higashi High School in rural Iwate Prefecture in Japan, and tonight, assuming Ohtani is in the lineup, they will face off as major leaguers. For a wonderful article on the significance of these kinds of individual rivalries, and how Japanese baseball fans view baseball quite differently than Americans do, check out this piece by Brad Lefton.

While the Mariners and Angels are both bringing up the rear in the AL West (unfortunate after the Mariners blistering start), Ohtani vs Kikuchi is a wonderful narrative that, as we turn our attention away from the NBA and NHL, reminds us why baseball can be so intriguing in the first place. 

It is the narrative element of baseball, I contend, that continues to provide appeal for a sport that would otherwise seem to fall behind in our culture of immediate gratification that has blossomed in the smart phone era. In fact, with these personal narratives in mind, I would like to call your attention to one of the greatest books on baseball I was fortunate enough to have just read (and I have read a lot of them).

LeAnne Howe’s Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story uses baseball as a backdrop to examine Choctaw life in three separate time periods: 1904-1907, 1969, and 2006. The book seamlessly moves through its time periods throughout its twelve chapters, and the reader acquires a bona fide sense of time travel navigating the pages of this book. One of the main characters in fact is Ezol Day, “Postal Clerk and Experimenter of Time.” 

Alive and vibrant during the 1904-1907 time period, Day is able to slip through time and visit the narrator in 2006, while the narrator uncovers the history of the Indian baseball team Miko Kings and simultaneously her own ancestry. Time, in fact, plays a major role in the book, and the narrator makes clear the Native American perception of time is far more attuned to the limitless nature of baseball time than a more traditional Western perception of time. 

Additionally, the book contends that it was in fact Native cultures, and not Abner Doubleday (as the myth goes), from which the game of stick ball originated. Is this so difficult to imagine, given white people’s massive eradication and appropriation of native populations during the inception of the nation? The book makes a convincing case.

While Howe claims in her author’s note that Miko Kingsis a work of fiction, she also reminds us about the great many Indian baseball teams that were afoot in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, in both Indian and Oklahoma Territories. These teams thrived during the era of re-allotment, and, if we are to believe the underlying implications of Miko Kings, provided a sense of community, solidarity and purpose among impoverished Indian nations (despite the abundance of violence the games often incurred), especially when facing white opponents. 

In Miko Kingsthe excitement on the diamond culminates in a nine game series against the Seventh Cavalrymen. I won’t spoil the drama here, but Howe is such a deft author, that she can not only capture the excitement of a bottom of the ninth scenario on the page, she can likewise relay the cultural ramifications when things go awry, whichever side you are rooting for. 

Baseball is truly larger than life in this book, and it’s one of the most brilliant examples I’ve seen of using sport to reimagine our taken-for-granted histories. How wonderful if everyone who read a biography of Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, or a “history” of baseball, were also forced to read Miko Kings.

Finally, the structure of this book is truly hybrid, in an age when so many books opportunistically claim to be so. There are imagined diaries, newspaper clippings, handwritten letters, movie stills (His Last Game, a 14 minute film from 1909 starring Indian baseball players, helped inspire Howe to write the book),poems, use of Native American language, facsimiles of old books, and straightforward text.

Not to mention time travel, and a murder or two for good measure. The sense of the Wild West, and what that might have actually looked like for turn of the century Native populations, is as present as the baseball diamond and the interpersonal dramas that kept me turning the pages.

It is a book that demands a reader’s close attention, and, importantly, pays huge dividends for those that are able to maintain it.

While it feels impossible to do this book justice in a review (this kind of book should be read amongst friends and studied in universities), if you are in need of NOT paying attention to the NBA Finals over the next couple weeks, Miko Kingswill not only teach, entertain and transport you to lands far away, but also get you jazzed for the long haul of summer baseball.

Meanwhile, if you are a diehard Blazers fan and can’t stomach devoting your summer to the mediocre Mariners, perhaps a Raptors championship can alleviate some of the long-standing playoff pain of the last five years. But don’t count on it.

Avatar photo
About Jesse Morse 18 Articles
Jesse Morse lives in Portland, Oregon. He teaches English at Clark College in Vancouver, WA and tutors high school Language Arts in the greater Portland area through Catalyst Pathways. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from University of Denver, and publishes poetry and book reviews in a variety of places. He helps curate 1122 Gallery out of his garage with the poet Jennifer Denrow (his wife!) and the artist Lauren Schaefer. He plays guitar and sings in the rock band The Whirlies. Most proudly, he is a devoted father to Wren, who teaches him how to properly hug each day. Find him on Instagram @jesseportlandmorse .