By Jack Gallagher
TOKYO -- "It would be distasteful to see a foreign player break Oh's record."
So said Fukuoka Daiei Hawks battery coach Yoshiharu Wakana back in 2001, after his staff made a mockery of the game by refusing to pitch to Kintetsu Buffaloes star Tuffy Rhodes, who had equaled Japanese baseball's single-season home run record of 55, held by the legendary Sadaharu Oh.
Wladimir Balentien of the Yakult Swallows tied Oh's hallowed record with a solo blast to right field in the sixth inning of Yakult's 6-2 loss to the Hiroshima Carp on Wednesday night in Tokyo. Balentien's team has 22 games remaining in the regular season.
The circuit clout by Balentien equaled the mark set by the legendary Oh with the Yomiuri Giants back in 1964. Oh went on to hit 868 homers in a career that spanned 22 seasons (1959-80).
The 29-year-old Balentien is a native of the Dutch island of Curacao, which has produced the likes of former major leaguers Andruw Jones (who also currently plays in Japan) and Hensley Meulens. Balentien hit 15 career home runs in stints with the Cincinnati Reds and Seattle Mariners.
Balentien's season has been nothing short of incredible in more ways than one. He missed the first 12 games of the campaign due to injury but then caught fire in a hurry. He has stayed hot throughout, hammering 18 homers in August alone. He is batting .340 with 117 RBIs on the year.
* * *
Twice previously, Oh's record has been tied. Rhodes did it for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2001, then Alex Cabrera for the Seibu Lions in 2002. But a funny thing happened in both instances: each slugger had trouble finding decent pitches to hit for the rest of the season.
Rhodes hit No. 55 off Seibu's Daisuke Matsuzaka. The former Chicago Cubs outfielder, who in 1994 cracked three home runs on Opening Day at Wrigley Field, had more games to try and break the tie with Oh, but as fate would have it, one of those contests was against the Daiei Hawks, managed by Oh at the time.
Daiei starter Keizaburo Tanoue pitched around Rhodes, in a game at the Fukuoka Dome that was a complete sham. Meanwhile, Oh stood in the dugout and watched the farce being played out, saying only, "It's all up to the players to decide."
Rhodes' teammate, Norihiro Nakamura, who later played briefly for the Los Angeles Dodgers, said at the time, "This is why Japanese baseball is no good."
Hiromori Kawashima, then the commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball, took the extraordinary step of releasing a statement saying that what Oh and the Hawks did "went against every principle of fair play." But as the NPB chief has real little power, no fine or other sanction was levied. It was an utter disgrace.
History has a way of repeating itself in Japan, where time often seems to stand still. The very next season, Cabrera also blasted No. 55 with five games left. Cabrera, too, went up against Oh's Hawks and saw nothing hittable, except a pitch that actually hit him.
In 1985, slugger Randy Bass led the lowly Hanshin Tigers to the Japan Series title, with an incredible season in which he cracked 54 home runs. Bass hit his 54th with two games left, but he too had the misfortune of facing the Giants -- managed by Oh at the time -- in both games. In each at bat in both games, Bass saw nothing resembling a strike, though he did manage to reach out across the plate and poke a single once.
In the final game, Bass was walked intentionally four times, each on four straight pitches. Oh denied he ordered his pitchers to walk Bass, but Keith Comstock, an American pitcher for the Giants, said that a Giants coach imposed a fine of $1,000 for every strike thrown to Bass.
The trifecta of blatant attempts to prevent Oh's record from being surpassed have made it an object of derision. ESPN ranked his 55 home runs second on their list of "Phoniest Sports Records" back in 2003.
Oh was put on the spot in 2007, when he accepted a Lifetime Achievement award from the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan, and asked point blank about the controversies.
"There is no doubt there are people who want to protect my record," he commented. "But an instruction to do that would never come from me or anyone on my team."
Oh, now 73, is considered a class act by almost all who have come into contact with him over the years, with the exception of this one blemish. The Tokyo native has talked about how his father (who was Chinese) told him how important it was to get along with people when he was growing up, so it is feasible that he did not want to go against the wishes of the Yomiuri or Daiei management at the time, and both clubs apparently wanted him to retain the record.
It's also worth noting that Oh set both the single-season and career marks using compressed bats, which were outlawed by NPB in 1982. These bats were illegal in MLB at the time. Other players were also using the compressed bat, of course, and Oh's home run total is still more than 200 higher than the next one on the all time list (657, by Katsuya Nomura).
Balentien has 22 games remaining in the Swallows' season, far more than the five games Rhodes or Cabrera had to break the record, or the two games Bass had to tie it. Another factor is that the Swallows are mired in last place in the Central League; Rhodes and Cabrera were in the middle of pennant races when they were pursuing Oh's record, which no doubt put additional pressure on them.
Oh is no longer managing, so Balentien won't run up against that obstacle. Oh still has many friends in the game, of course, but it would take a conspiracy of monumental proportions to pull off any caper this time around. At this point, the only thing that could deny Balentien sole possession of the record is a serious injury.
Balentien seems unconcerned about all of the hoopla surrounding Oh's long-standing record, which could be one reason he has stayed in a groove.
"I know all the stuff that went on before," he told The Japan Times last week. "I have a lot of respect for all those guys. Cabrera, Randy Bass, even though I don't know him. I don't know Tuffy Rhodes, but I have respect for him. I don't know Sadaharu Oh, but he's the king of Japan. So I have a lot of respect for him.
"I think, personally, it's just time to move on and give opportunities to other players to represent themselves and the talent they have. I'm not saying it just for me. Could be the next player next year, or in two years."
After Balentien pounded his 54th homer on Tuesday against Hiroshima, he was asked if he wanted Oh to be in attendance to see the record broken.
"It has to come from his side," Balentien said. "If he thinks I have a shot to do it and feels like he wants to be there to watch it, it's an honor for me because he's the greatest home run hitter ever."
* * *
Jack Gallagher is the executive sports editor of The Japan Times in Tokyo. He has been a sports journalist in Japan for 18 years and has been honored for his writing both domestically and internationally. He was previously an executive in public relations for the NBA and NFL Europe.