Lesson of the Knuckleball by guest Naomi Hirahara

Julie here, thrilled to welcome Naomi Hirahara to the blog today. Her Mas Arai mystery series features a Japanese American gardener and atomic-bomb survivor who solves crimes. In this, the sixth book of the series, Naomi uses the lens of baseball to tell the story. A perfect summer read. Thanks for visiting the blog Naomi!


By Naomi Hirahara

Sayonara Slam coverGrowing up, I was the ultimate nerd girl. I wore skirts that my mother got from my grandmother in Japan. I was usually the one of the shortest students in the class; dodge ball was my personal nightmare as I was targeted first for the sting of the ball. But then in sixth grade something happened. I started playing basketball for a community league.

I couldn’t block shots or rebound that well. But I discovered that I could dribble or more importantly, steal balls from my opponent. Pretty soon, the girls from the other team sitting on the bench would yell out, “Watch out,” when I got in position to play defense. I had found my niche. Be fast and quick. And be tenacious.

Ever since that time, I’ve loved sports. I love the underdog stories, the stories of men and women who have overcome big odds – whether it be emotional, mental, financial, social or even physical – to excel in sports. Teammates who bond together and cheer on the weakest player, because that’s the only way the team can win sometimes. I’m also fascinated by the celebrity of sports – how athletes can challenge societal norms and expectations.

In my latest Mas Arai novel, Sayonara Slam, I examine the relations between Korea and Japan through the lens of baseball at Dodger Stadium. But the story is much more than even that – baseball has played a role in the Japanese American experience ever since Babe Ruth and other stars went on a barnstorming tour of Japan in the 1934. And then there is the phenomenon of Eri Yoshida, the first woman to be drafted by a Japanese professional baseball team at age 16. She also became the first woman to play professionally in two countries – Japan and the US.

Yoshida is a knuckleball pitcher. Anyone who knows baseball is aware that the knuckleball pitchers are a rare breed. These pitchers don’t have to rely on brute strength and power to be effective. No, they depend on a certain je ne sais quoi that some observers unfairly put in the category of circus performers.

There are only two knuckleball pitchers on Major League Baseball teams today: Steven Wright on the Boston Red Sox (see, I worked in New England!) and R.A. Dickey for the Toronto Blue Jays. Since I’ve featured a Japanese female knuckleball pitcher in Sayonara Slam, I did my share of research. I watched a fabulous documentary called, “Knuckleball!”, and read Dickey’s autobiography, Wherever I Wind Up. Dickey’s story is especially compelling because he was a highly touted pitcher in high school and college but later discovered that he was missing a ligament in his right elbow joint during a medical exam for a professional baseball team. His baseball career looked like it was over until he decided to embrace the knuckleball.

Someone like Eri Yoshida, a woman who stands 5’1”, can also play on a men’s professional baseball team with the magic of the knuckleball. After a brief stint of playing minor league baseball in California and Hawaii, Yoshida is still pitching at age 24 for a men’s semipro team, the Ishikawa Million Stars, in Japan. Watch Yoshida in action here:

It was a joy to write about America’s oldest pastime in my latest mystery. Truth be told, I’m more of a basketball fan. But the lesson of the knuckleball – for the underdog to surprise – is something that I continue to hold close to my heart, not only in sports but also in writing and life.

When you feel down and out, find your knuckleball!

Author Naomi Hirahara

Naomi Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning author of the Mas Arai and Officer Ellie Rush series.

13 Thoughts

  1. How delightful, Naomi! I’m putting this on the list for my vacation reading in a couple of weeks, and can’t quite believe I haven’t read your series yet – I’m also short, grew up in southern California, and lived in Japan for two years! Congratulations, and thanks for joining us on the blog today.

    1. I miss Fenway and going to the Sox there! Reading about your books today reminds me of the beauty of experiencing baseball. Thank you.

  2. I remember seeing you, Naomi, for the first time at Bouchercon in Toronto on a panel called something like “an unsuitable job for a woman.” Loved it and read every one of those authors and their books. I’m so impressed with the research you do for your books, and I can tell you LOVE doing it. All the best! –kate

    1. Kate: Yes, Bouchercon Toronto was one of my first mystery conventions after my debut mystery was published. It was a bit overwhelming, for sure!

  3. “Find your knuckleball.” I love that!

    One of our Boston favorites was Tim Wakefield, who had a long career with the Red Sox. It was fascinating to watch him pitch.love the frame you’ve out around the style.

    Thanks so much for visiting the blog today!!

  4. I always enjoy watching a knuckleball pitcher pitch but have a new appreciation for them. And I love your personal story too! Thanks for joining us today.

  5. Thanks for such an inspiring post. And Sayonara Slam is a great book. This coming from a non-sports guy.

    1. Thanks, Mark. BTW, I really recommend the R.A. Dickey autobiography. He’s so honest about early struggles (being molested as a child) and how devastated he was when he learned that he may not possibly be able to pursue baseball because of the missing ligament in his arm. He seems like a very humble, down-to-earth person.

  6. I really enjoyed the way this post connected to mysteries featuring amateur sleuths. Like Eri Yoshida, amateur sleuths, are underdogs worthy of admirers. Thanks for visiting the Wickeds today!

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