When Randy Bass hit his 54th home run of the year, he thought he would have a decent shot at the Japan single-season record.
With two games remaining in the 1985 season — both against the Yomiuri Giants — Bass needed two home runs to surpass the record of 55 set by Giants legend Sadaharu Oh. The bearded Hanshin Tigers slugger liked his chances, especially with the season finale set for Yomiuri’s cozy Korakuen Stadium.
What puzzled Bass were his teammates’ reactions.
“I was in Nagoya and I hit the 54th home run, and I had two games left with the Giants,” Bass recalled during a telephone interview with The Japan Times. “My teammates were saying sorry man, you didn’t break the record, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do that. And I kept thinking, why are we talking about this, you know, with a couple of games left? When I got there I realized that it was over.”
The Giants, managed by Oh at the time, gave Bass nothing in the first game, his only hit coming after he reached into the opposite batter’s box and poked a single into the outfield, and they walked him four times in the finale.
“Even the (Giants) catcher said gomen nasai … can’t throw you … just … gomen nasai, and they walked me four times in a row and it’s like, oh, OK, I guess it’s over,” Bass said.
Tuffy Rhodes could tell a similar story. So could Alex Cabrera.
Rhodes tied Oh’s record while with the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2001 with five games left, came up against a Fukuoka Daiei Hawks team managed by Oh, and was walked profusely. Former Seibu Lion Cabrera tied the mark with five games remaining in 2002, and when he faced Oh’s Hawks the closet pitch he saw was one that bore in and hit him.
The antics threw the two sluggers so off their game neither had much of a chance at the few pitches they did see from other teams.
Bass, Rhodes and Cabrera each fell victim to unsportsmanlike tactics while pursuing a record that for more than 20 years has been as famous for the lengths taken to protect it as anything else.
The situation is known outside Japan as well. In 2003, U.S. sports conglomerate ESPN listed the record as No. 2 on its list of ‘The Phoniest Records in Sports.’
The reasons for the zealous protection of the mark are hard to pinpoint. Some say it’s out of reverence for Oh, while others believe it’s Oh protecting a piece of his legacy — or the Giants protecting a piece of theirs. Some have pointed to the fact it was three foreign players being denied the chance to break a celebrated Japanese record.
The answer may be a combination of those, or conversely none of the above.
“I don’t think Oh would truly be upset if somebody broke it,” Bass said. “I think he would congratulate him and go on. They’re making a big deal out of nothing. I know it’s a Giants record. It’s a Giants record, and they’re trying to hold on to all the records they can.”
Bass’ sentiments could be put to the test very soon, with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Wladimir Balentien sitting on 52 home runs and gunning for the mark.
“This thing doesn’t happen every year,” Balentien said. “So when you have the opportunity to live it, I want to do the best I can and try to put my name there. Hopefully, I can break it, and in a couple of years, there will be a better hitter who can break it. I don’t care; it’s just part of the game.”
Balentien has so far surpassed the pace the previous three challengers were on, and has 27 games to hit four home runs.
“He’s in a good position to break it,” Bass said. “Maybe when he gets down to where he’s got 20 at-bats (remaining) or something like that, they may try to pitch super carefully to him. But they can’t just walk him 100 times. I mean, come on. It’d be way too obvious then.”
Born in Sumida Ward in Tokyo on May 20, 1940, Sadaharu Oh pitched through a bleeding blister to lead Waseda Jitsugyo to the title in the 1957 National High School Baseball Tournament.
The Giants signed him as a pitcher, but Oh realized he was more suited to stand in the batter’s box and, with the help of hitting coach Hiroshi Arakawa, developed his famous flamingo stance and set out on a career that would see him hit a world record of 868 home runs.
Oh was also one of the stars of the V9 Giants (1965-1973), the most famous iteration of Japan’s most famous franchise, and helped lead the Kyojin to nine consecutive Japan Series titles during that period.
Oh was a nine-time MVP and remains NPB’s career leader in home runs and RBIs (2,170). In 1964, Oh hit 55 home runs to break the single-season record of 52, set a year earlier by Nankai Hawks battering ram Katsuya Nomura.
There is no shortage of reverence for Oh in Japan. In 1977, he became the first recipient of the People’s Honor Award, an honor bestowed by Japan’s Prime Minister that was in fact created as a way to honor Oh’s career home run record.
The praise lavished upon Oh is matched only by stories of his politeness and generosity.
Oh, who currently serves as president of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, remains a bonafide legend in Japan, perhaps the most beloved in history, or if not, then second only to his charismatic former teammate Shigeo “Mr. Giants” Nagashima.
Juxtaposed against Oh’s sterling reputation is speculation over his role in protecting the record, considering teams he managed played a major role each time. Oh has repeatedly denied any personal involvement.
“There is no doubt there are people who want to protect my record,” Oh said while receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in December of 2007. “But an instruction to do that would never come from me or anyone on my team.”
There are those who believe Oh, and those who don’t. Bass isn’t sure what the truth is, but he bears no grudges towards Oh.
“Did Oh do it? I have no idea,” Bass said of his experience. “I don’t think so. I hope not. I hope it was all played in fairness, and then the (Giants) owner just said, ‘Look, this is our record and we’re going to hold on to it.’ I hope that’s what happened. I don’t know that’s what happened. It’s hard to get to the bottom of it.”
Another possibility is some simply didn’t want a foreign player to own one of Japan’s greatest records, an interesting concept considering Oh was born to a Chinese father and Japanese mother — though nevertheless held up as one of the faces of the “pure-blooded” V9 Giants.
Author Robert Whiting in his book “The Meaning of Ichiro” mentioned that Yomiuri’s Shigeru Chiba said as much in 1985. Later years also saw Daiei battery coach Yoshiharu Wakana and others express similar sentiments against a foreigner holding the record.
“We’ve let Kintetsu win the pennant and now if we let (Rhodes) pass the manager’s (Oh’s) record, we would be called shameless,” Wanaka was quoted as saying by Sports Nippon in 2001. “I don’t want a foreigner to do it. Oh-san is someone that has to be in the record book. So don’t go too actively against Rhodes.”
Some of the hostility toward a foreign player holding the record could have been the carryover from the toxic relationship between the U.S. and Japan — hovering around its lowest point since World War II — in the 1980s, among other factors.
“Also, Japan has always had this complex about the United States,” Whiting said in a telephone interview. “Because of the war and because of the economic differences and then baseball, they’ve always lost. Americans have always been bigger, stronger, better players, etc. Well, major leaguers, I shouldn’t just say Americans because 30 percent of them are from outside the United States.
“That changed with (Hideo) Nomo, Ichiro (Suzuki), (Hideki) Matsui. The Japanese have shown that they can compete. That their best players can compete at the highest levels.”
Some Japanese may have also harbored a resentment of highly paid players coming from MLB with what they perceived as lackadaisical approaches to the game.
“Japanese felt they were being taken lightly,” Whiting said.
Because fans in Japan have greater access to MLB — with daily games on NHK and various documentaries and programs — that feeling has dissipated somewhat.
“I think they understand now it wasn’t a question of players being arrogant, looking down on, or making fun of the Japanese way,” Whiting said. “It was just the way the Americans did things. They had a different concept, different attitude about the way baseball should be played and how they should practice for it.
“Japanese turned their game into a martial art back in the late 19th century, this whole idea of endless training developing spirit. Whereas to the Americans, it’s a game of timing and quickness. You don’t have to go out and run 10 miles every day or throw a 300-pitch nagekomi session in camp to test your skills. They understand that difference is there. So the suspicious attitude they had toward Americans has diminished a lot since the 1980s.”
Balentien has heard the stories.
“I know all the stuff that went on before,” he said. “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.”
Bass also feels enough is enough.
“It’s a baseball game,” he said. “Records, that’s what they’re there for. For newcomers to come in and do their very best to try and break all the records they can. I wouldn’t be angry if somebody broke my batting average record (the single-season mark of .389 set in 1986), or any record. I would just say, ‘Man, he had an awesome year.’”
Only time will tell how many share that sentiment; however, the respect shown to Hanshin’s Matt Murton when he rapped out 214 hits in 2010 to break Ichiro’s single-season record (210) may be a positive sign.
“In that particular environment, I felt the reception was good, given the fact that it was about the team,” Murton said, noting that the Tigers were in a pennant race at the time, unlike Balentien’s last-place Swallows. “It was about the team trying to win. You had heard about past scenarios with foreign players and the home run record and how they did this and did that.
“I don’t think they’re going to make it easy on you. They’re going to obviously focus on you and try to get you out. But I felt like they gave us a competitive chance and I felt like the reception was pretty good. You know, I was on the road and I thought the fans responded in a really positive manner. I was so thankful for that.”
Ichiro, a former Seattle Mariners teammate of Balentien’s, may have been the key to changing attitudes in Japanese baseball, ironically, by virtue of his many achievements in the U.S.
“Especially since Ichiro got his 4,000 hits and you saw the kind of reception he got in America,” Whiting said. “Everything was widely welcomed, nobody tried to stop him. He beat (George) Sisler’s (single-season hits) record, and nobody said we’re not going to let a Japanese break an American record. Nobody said that. Ichiro himself even said, ‘They’re a lot fairer to me than the Japanese were to Bass.’ That’s in the national consciousness.”
There’s no easy road to 56, and Balentien is going to be walked on occasion.
Most of Yakult’s opponents are still jockeying for position in the Central League and putting Balentien on base will sometimes be the smart baseball move.
That will cut down on the number of pitches he’ll see, and doesn’t even account for the possibility some will also still be trying to preserve Oh’s piece of the record.
“He’s going to always be ahead of the pitcher, because they’re pitching very carefully to him,” Bass said. “If he’s going to get anything to hit, if he’s going to break the record, it’s going to be a breaking ball. It’s not going to be a fastball.
“He just has to be patient and calm and not let the press bother him and just keep going up there and trying to hit the ball. Because eventually, he’s going to get in a situation where they have to pitch a little bit better to him because if they don’t it’ll be bases loaded sometimes. You just never know. Just gotta be patient, man.
“They’re not going to give it to him. He’s going to have to work for it.”