Third in a three-part series
The one big black mark on Sadaharu Oh’s reputation was, of course, the unsportsmanlike behavior of the pitchers on his team whenever foreign batsmen threatened his single season home run record of 55.
The phenomenon had first surfaced in 1985, when American Randy Bass playing for the Hanshin Tigers, who went into the last game of the season — against the Oh-managed Giants at Korakuen Stadium — with 54 home runs.
Bass was walked intentionally four times on four straight pitches and would have been walked a fifth, had he not reached out and poked a pitch far outside the plate into the outfield.
Oh denied ordering his pitchers to walk Bass, but Keith Comstock, an American pitcher for Yomiuri reported afterward that a certain Giants coach imposed a fine of $1,000 for every strike Giants pitchers threw to Bass.
A subsequent investigation by the magazine Takarajima concluded that the instructions had probably originated in the Giants front office, which wanted the home run record kept in the Giants organization.
Except for an editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbun’s archrival, the Asahi, demanding to know why Oh did not run out to the mound and order his pitchers to throw strikes, the media remained silent, as did then-NPB commissioner Takeso Shimoda, who had often stated his belief that the Japanese game would never be considered first class as long as there were former MLB bench-warmers starring on Japanese teams.
Of course, the reality was more complex. There were many imports who were in fact gifted hitters, but were kept out of big league lineups by other shortcomings in their game or by bad luck — simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, Shimoda and like-minded critics failed to see such shades of gray.
A replay of the Bass episode came during the 2001 season. American Tuffy Rhodes, playing for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, threatened Oh’s record.
With several games left in the season, Rhodes hit the 55 mark. But during a late season weekend series in Fukuoka, pitchers on the Hawks refused to throw strikes to Rhodes and catcher Kenji Johjima could be seen grinning during the walks.
Again Oh denied any involvement in their actions and Hawks battery coach Yoshiharu Wakana admitted the pitchers had acted on his orders.
“It would be distasteful to see a foreign player break Oh’s record,” he told reporters.
The NPB commissioner on watch, Hiromori Kawashima, denounced his behavior as “unsportsmanlike,” and there was some outcry from the media.
However, this did not help Rhodes, who went homerless the rest of the way. Rhodes remained convinced that there was a “Code Red” that kicked into action whenever a foreign player did too well.
A second replay occurred in 2002, when Venezuelan Alex Cabrera also hit 55 home runs, tying Oh (and Rhodes) with five games left to play in the season. Oh commanded his pitchers not to repeat their behavior of the previous year, but, not surprisingly, most of them ignored him. There was more condemnation from the public, but, curiously, not from Oh, who simply shrugged and said, “If you’re going to break the record, you should do it by more than one. Do it by a lot.”
Such behavior led an ESPN critic to call Oh’s record “one of the phoniest in baseball.”
In Oh’s defense, there was probably nothing he could have done to prevent his pitchers from acting as they did. Feelings about “gaijin” aside, it was (and still is) common practice for teams to take such action to protect a teammate’s record or title.
In all three assaults on Oh’s record, the respective front offices had a decided interest in the outcome. Oh’s 55 homers was a Yomiuri record, while executives with the Hawks believed Oh’s status as a record-holder brought the organization favorable PR.
No pitcher on any of Oh’s teams wanted to be the one who gave up the homer that cost Oh that particular spot in the record books.
Finally, there was the question of Oh’s own personality. He was a product of his life experiences and his father’s life experiences as a member of a minority group in Japan. He surely knew better than to make waves and to embarrass the executive suits that had so much invested in him.
Still, amid all the fuss about protectionism in baseball, it is noteworthy that no one in the Japanese game ever sees fit to mention the fact that Oh hit most of his home runs using rock hard, custom-made compressed bats.
A batter using a compressed bat, it was said, could propel a ball farther than he can with an ordinary bat. Compressed bats were illegal in the MLB when Oh was playing in Japan, and were outlawed by the NPB in 1982 after Oh retired, but well before Bass, Rhodes and Cabrera had Japan visas stamped into their passports.
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Oh’s finest hour as a manager was perhaps his performance in the 2006 inaugural WBC. He had passed his 65th birthday and his age was starting to show. Moreover, he was not in the best of health, and was months away from a bout with cancer that would spare his life but cause a rearrangement of his digestive system.
The NPB owners, after long negotiations, had agreed to participate in the tourney but the NPB Players Association refused to cooperate. They were upset over the March schedule which they felt would interfere with their spring training.
Another thing that bothered them was that they had been completely left out of the loop in the discussions leading up to the WBC, both by the NPB owners and the American organizers of the event.
The NPB owners, with typical arrogance, had not bothered to inform the players of what had been going on, much less seek their consent or consult with them about the terms of participation in the WBC, until long after the tournament was announced.
More important, the players were skeptical of the event itself. They did not particularly think it was a worthy use of their time.
To break the impasse, senior executives from Yomiuri (which had agreed to sponsor the Asian round) prevailed upon Sadaharu Oh to manage the team, hoping that the presence of one of the most revered names in Japanese baseball history could somehow change the dynamic. Their first choice, Shigeo Nagashima (naturally), was not available due to the aftereffects of his stroke.
Oh had his own (secret) misgivings about the event, but true to his agreeable nature, finally agreed to take part. “I’ll do it for the welfare of Japanese baseball,” Oh had said a well-publicized remark, “I’ll do it for the future. For 50 years from now.”
Ichiro Suzuki, among others, was, initially, not impressed.
“What difference does it make if some old guy is going to manage the team?” he reportedly told acquaintances, “That doesn’t make it a real event.”
But the “old guy” was persistent. He threw himself into the job with typical perseverance. His own story was a tale of continued perseverance and triumph over personal tragedy.
Oh began a courtship of Ichiro and Hideki Matsui and he did it with the grace and diplomacy that was typical of him. He worked very hard to persuade them individually how important it was that Japan participate, that they participate.
Japan’s greatest slugger approached them as if they would be doing him a personal favor if they joined the team. In the end, Ichiro agreed to play, although Matsui felt too strong an obligation to the Yankees to leave spring camp.
Oh drove his players hard and the cool, aloof Ichiro somehow magically transformed into a fiery leader, exhorting his team to greater effort in practice and in the actual competition.
Japan went on to win the tourney — despite its three defeats overall — on a succession of steadily improving performances and a managerial strategy which combined caution with aggression.
The final, a 10-6 triumph over Cuba played at Petco Park in San Diego, riveted the nation. It was watched by one out of every two Japanese, a total audience of roughly 60 million people, which made it one of the most watched sporting events in the history of Japan.
It ignited an enormous national cheer back home. It was an ironic ending for a team that had not wanted to participate in the first place.
With the WBC victory, Oh was now more popular than he had ever been and it was a fitting cap to his career. Yet in a survey conducted by Sangyo Noritsu University to determine the “Boss of the Decade” the following year, Oh finished well behind Nagashima in the voting, despite having a higher lifetime winning percentage, at the time.
Somehow the results were not surprising.
Oh had fought against adversity his whole life, it seemed. As a youth, he had been banned from participating in an important national tournament because he was not a Japanese citizen, even though he was the best player on his team.
As a pro, he had to cede the spotlight to the more popular, pure-blooded Nagashima, despite the fact that he was arguably the best player in baseball during the Giants glory years, and as Giants manager had been faced with a team that did not wholeheartedly welcome his leadership.
Oh’s years with the Hawks, successful as they were, were marred by other difficulties. Among them was the premature death, in 2002, of his wife Kyoko, who succumbed to stomach cancer. That was followed by the inexplicable theft of her ashes from the family graveyard, never to be retrieved.
And then came Oh’s own bout with stomach cancer. In the middle of the 2006 season, Oh underwent laparoscopic surgery in which his cancerous stomach was completely removed.
But the thing about Oh is that you never, ever heard him complain — about anything. He just sucked up whatever misfortunes life dealt to him and went on to the next challenge. He always tried to look at the bright side.
When he returned to manage the Hawks in 2007, several kilograms lighter and looking, as one reporter put it, “like an underfed jockey,” he acted as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do.
“Yes, I don’t have a stomach anymore,” he said, the last time I saw him, in the fall of 2007 when he appeared at a Foreign Sportswriters of Japan event to pick up a Lifetime Achievement Award, “but now I can eat as much chocolate as I want.”
However, the Hawks fell further out of contention in that ’07 season and were eliminated in the playoffs for the fourth straight year.
In 2008, the Hawks dropped into last place and Oh announced his resignation and his retirement from field managing. He referenced ill health, but also took responsibility for the team’s failure to win another championship. “Managers should not stay that long in one place,” he said.
The announcement of his retirement prompted a wave of tributes from the prime minister’s office on down, as well as a special newspaper editions and TV reports lauding his accomplishments.
People seemed to sense that with Oh’s retirement they had lost something more than just a baseball hero, that they had lost a connection to an era in Japan where the values of hard work, selflessness, and responsibility mattered a lot more than they do now.
Professor Saito summed it up when he eulogized Oh in an interview with NHK. “We are living in an era of instant gratification,” he said, “People these days want everything now and they give in too easily to adversity. But not Oh. He has shown us what the true meaning of ‘doryoku’ is.”
Johjima had flown back from the States to attend Oh’s farewell game on Oct. 7, 2008.
“Oh was a great human being,” he said when it was all over, “He was special, as a player, as a manager, as a man. He was a baseball father figure to me. It was a huge honor to play for him.”