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Hanshin’s Brazell reminding many of legendary Bass

by Wayne Graczyk

As Hanshin Tigers first baseman Craig Brazell continues his hot hitting and home run barrage, the Japanese media has begun to compare him to Randy Bass, another lefty-hitting Hanshin first baseman, from 25 years ago.

To refresh your memory, Bass had two of the best seasons enjoyed by anyone in Japanese baseball — native or foreigner — when he won back-to-back Triple Crowns in the Central League in 1985-86. Moreover, in ’85, the Oklahoma native led the Tigers to their first Japan Series championship, hitting 54 home runs while driving in 134 and batting .389, still an NPB record for highest average.

Linking the two became intensified last week after Brazell knocked out two home runs in a July 2-4 series against the archrival Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome, following his three-homer game against the Chunichi Dragons at Koshien Stadium on June 29.

The Tigers played their 72nd game of the year last Sunday, marking the halfway point in the 2010 season, and Brazell had hit a Japan-leading 28 home runs, putting him on a pace to hit 56 for the full season. That would not only break Bass’ Hanshin team record, but also would be a new standard for homers in a season in Japanese baseball.

The world home run king Sadaharu Oh holds the mark of 55 hit in 1964, since tied by foreign players Tuffy Rhodes in 2001 and Alex Cabrera in 2002.

It is unlikely Brazell will win a Triple Crown, but he hit his 29th homer and had a Central League second-best total of 65 RBIs and was ninth on the CL batting list with a .310 average through Thursday. As for 56 homers, he says that probably won’t happen either, but it is not his priority anyway.

Giving the standard response the Japanese teams, media and fans like to hear, Brazell says, “I don’t care how many homers I hit, as long as the team wins.”

The Tigers were in second place, three games behind the front-running Giants, and prospects for at least making the Climax Series look great.

Brazell knows all about Bass, now 56 and an Oklahoma state senator, and what he did for the Tigers a quarter of a century ago.

It should be pointed out, however, there are two key factors that have changed since Bass had that banner season in 1985. At that time, the Central and Pacific Leagues played a 130-game season. These days, the schedule includes 144 games, so Brazell has 14 more games to his advantage.

Also, 25 years ago, Hanshin’s Koshien Stadium had what were called “lucky zones.” Wire fences ran across the outfield in left-center and right-center field, and the bullpens were situated between them and the outer wall in front of the outfield stands. The power alley homer distances were about 10 meters (28 feet) closer to home than they are now and, of course, balls clearing the first fence and landing in the “lucky zone” were home runs.

The wire fences were removed in 1992, and the bullpens relocated to foul territory. The “lucky zones” are gone but, to be fair to Bass, he did not need much luck, and most of his home runs went deep into the stands. The same goes for Brazell who has awesome power and likes to show it off.

“About once a week or so, I let loose during batting practice and see how far I can hit the ball. I especially like Yokohama Stadium, because I can go completely out of the stadium,” he said.

Neither Bass nor Brazell had a spectacular first or second season in Japan, but each hit it big in their third year. In 1983, Bass joined the Tigers and hit 35 homers with 83 RBIs, batting .288. The following year he hit .326 with 27 homers and 73 RBIs. After that, it was Triple Crownsville.

Brazell’s first season in Japan was 2008; not with Hanshin but with the Pacific League champ Saitama Seibu Lions. He slammed 27 homers and drove in 87 but batted only .234. He was hit in the head by a pitch late in the season and missed the Japan Series, which the Lions won over the Giants. After the Series, he was released and found himself playing independent league ball in the U.S. at the start of the 2009 season.

In what is turning out to be one of the best moves ever made by the franchise, Hanshin signed Brazell in May of last year, and he put in a decent half-season, hitting 16 home runs with 49 RBIs and compiling a .291 average.

This year, he’s on fire, and it would be symbolic if we were to see him play in the 2010 Japan Series against Seibu, the club that dumped him.

But, back to the record. Brazell says he knows what happened to Bass, Rhodes and Cabrera as they threatened to break Oh’s record. Opposing pitchers suddenly were not throwing strikes, and the guys were doing a lot of walking.

“I don’t need to break the record,” Brazell said. “It’s a record I respect and maybe one that should not be broken. If I get to 55 and get shut down, so be it. I’ll be happy.”

Especially if the Tigers win.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com