Japan's new home-run hero breaks barriers
By Neil Wilkie ,AFPTOKYO -- In the traditional world of Japanese baseball, breaking with the past is not easy but a beefy Caribbean slugger has shattered one of its most historic records in a season marked by controversy over a bouncy new ball.
September 17, 2013, 12:08 am TWN
When Wladimir Balentien, a 29-year-old former major-leaguer from Curacao, smacked his 56th and 57th home runs of the season on Sunday against the Hanshin Tigers, it ended a stubbornly defended mark which had stood for nearly 50 years.
It came just a few months after Japanese baseball chiefs were forced to admit to secretly introducing a new ball designed to bounce further off the bat, a move that has been credited with a surge in home runs.
The Yakult Swallows outfielder's exploits finally toppled the Japanese record of 55 homers in a season set by Sadaharu Oh, a legend of domestic baseball whose mark set in 1964 had withstood earlier challenges by foreign players — and not always fairly.
In 1985, American Randy Bass reached 54 home runs with two games to play against the mighty Yomiuri Giants, Japan's fabled team then managed by Oh.
But every time Bass, of the Hanshin Tigers, stepped up to the plate at Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium, the Giants pitchers intentionally “walked” him by throwing unhittable pitches, in an unsporting bid to preserve Oh's record.
“I was thinking I had two games left to break it. But we were playing the Giants and Sadaharu Oh was their manager,” Bass told AFP in a telephone interview from his home in Oklahoma.
“I had no idea they were going to walk me. I thought that I would have an opportunity to break or tie the record. First time up, the catcher said 'gomennasai' (sorry) and I walked four pitches in a row.”
The iconic Oh, Japan's answer to Babe Ruth, denied ordering his pitchers to walk Bass. But Keith Comstock, an American pitcher for the Giants, later revealed that one of the team's coaches had imposed a US$1,000 fine for every strike thrown to Bass.
It was a similar story in 2001 when America's Tuffy Rhodes of the Kintetsu Buffaloes faced the Daiei Hawks, again managed by Oh, having reached 55 home runs to tie the record. Again the pitchers refused to throw strikes, and again Oh denied any collusion as Rhodes went homerless for the rest of the season.
However, Hawks battery coach Yoshiharu Wakana gave a revealing insight after the game, telling reporters: “It would be distasteful to see a foreign player break Oh's record.”
Venezuela's Alex Cabrera also tied the record in 2002, and also saw good pitches dry up.
Balentien, with some 18 games still to play this season, now has the opportunity to put distance between his record and the mark set by Oh, who was quick to offer his congratulations.
“It's overwhelming that he has hit a home-run at a rate of one for every two games. I am looking forward to seeing how far he will go,” said the 73-year-old.