Over the years I’ve been asked, “Who is the No. 1 foreigner to have played in Japanese baseball?”
It is difficult to choose only one from among the nearly 1,000 men who have played with Central and Pacific League teams since 1950. Also, what do we mean by “No. 1?”
If you’re talking longevity and statistics, I have to pick Alex Ramirez over such former stars as Tuffy Rhodes, Boomer Wells, Leron and Leon Lee, Alex Cabrera, Bobby Marcano, John Sipin, Warren Cromartie and Bobby Rose.
If you want to go with impact, for me it’s Randy Bass, the former Hanshin Tigers slugger who won back-to-back CL Triple Crowns in 1985-86 and led his team to a rare Japan Series victory 28 years ago.
Apparently I am not the only one who thinks this way, as Bass has been invited to Japan annually to play in the Suntory Malts old-timers game, and his popularity in Japan has endured for almost three decades. Bass is back again, having played in the Malts game last Monday at Tokyo Dome, and I asked him why he thinks that is so.
“I think it’s all because of that 1985 season,” he said. “The fans remember the Tigers won the Japan Series for the first time in 21 years (and have not won it since then). It was an incredible year.”
He recalled the night of April 17 of that year, when he (batting third in the Hanshin lineup), cleanup hitter Masayuki Kakefu and No. 5 batter Akinobu Okada slammed consecutive home runs over the fence in straightaway center field at Koshien Stadium off young Yomiuri Giants right-hander Hiromi Makihara. It was an electrifying scene Tigers fans will never forget, igniting a flame that stayed lit until Hanshin celebrated a six-game victory over the Seibu Lions in the 1985 Japan Series.
Bass belted 54 homers that year, drove in 134 and batted .350. He was named MVP for the Central League season and the Japan Series.
Foreign players are supposed to be suketto or “helpers,” but the Hanshin fans did not care that it was Bass who led the team in such a dominant way. They were so starved for a pennant, It was OK with them if an American set the pace.
The current trip is his second to Japan this year; he was at Koshien in June and was invited to throw out the first pitch at a Tigers game where the warm reception he received proved he had not been forgotten.
“The crowd was great,” said Bass. “Even though Koshien Stadium has been renovated and has changed a little, I could close my eyes and imagine what it was like in 1985.”
He was supposed to have played in a Hanshin-Kyojin OB game at Koshien last fall, but had to skip it because of a detached retina in his left eye, the medication for which precluded him from flying to Japan.
“I was really sorry to miss that,” he said. “Especially since I heard it might be the last one for (Sadaharu) Oh-san.” It was the former Giant Oh’s single-season Japanese baseball home run record of 55 Bass was chasing in 1985 when he was walked often late in the season by the Giants, then managed by Oh, who is now 73.
Commenting on the possibility that current Central League sluggers Wladimir Balentien or Tony Blanco might challenge Oh’s 55 home run mark (tied in 2001 by Rhodes and 2002 by Cabrera), Bass said, “Records are made to be broken. It’s OK if a guy hits 56. No one is ever going to forget Oh-san.”
He pointed out Oh’s seemingly unreachable career mark of 868 home runs.
On the current CL pennant race where Hanshin trails the Giants by 6½ games through Friday, Bass said, “The Tigers today need more home run power.”
Hanshin batters have hit just 52 out of the park so far this year, the lowest total among the 12 pro teams. The 1985 Tigers hit 219 homers, with Bass (54), Kakefu (40), Okada (35) and Akinobu Mayumi (34) combining for 163.
“The pitching looks great, though, and I hope they can catch the Giants,” Bass said of his former club.
What is Bass doing these days?
Besides being a politician, serving as a state senator in his native Oklahoma, he is also a businessman, having started his own line of food and beverage products sold in Japan.
There are also some major commercial deals with Japanese companies coming up later this year.
He is 59 and can run for one more term in the Oklahoma senate house but, if the opportunity were to present itself, he indicated he would love to get back into baseball as a coach or manager in Japan.
“If the Tigers were to ask me to come back in uniform, it is something I would have to think about,” he said. “Whenever I come back to Japan, it feels as if I am coming home. I keep in touch with former teammates, and the Japanese fans have always been great.”
Diamond Dust: The Orix Buffaloes will stage a tribute to the late Brad “The Animal” Lesley prior to their game against the Saitama Seibu Lions at Osaka’s Kyocera Dome on Aug. 10.
A video with highlights of Lesley’s 1986-87 career with the Hankyu Braves will be shown, and Lesley’s son, Luke, has been invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com