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Apologetic Balentien faces long road back

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Wladimir Balentien has apologized twice now — once in the United States and, on Wednesday, back on Japanese soil — with much of his time spent atoning to the Tokyo Yakult Swallows fans and the organization.

But how will those fans receive him beginning Feb. 1, when the Swallows open spring camp?

The team, at least publicly, has given him tepid support, with club president Tsuyoshi Kinugasa, according to Kyodo News, hoping Balentien plays with remorse and displays his talents on the field.

Appreciating the team had to say something, it’s somewhat naive to imagine a set number of home runs or on-field achievements can erase the stigma of the charges against Balentien.

Balentien has apologized, but no matter how many balls he hits out of the park, the events of the offseason will linger in the minds of many fans still trying to reconcile the image of the gentle giant with the easy smile, bellowing laugh and electric bat, with the stone-faced figure in the mugshot that was shown in Japanese media after his arrest.

One incident doesn’t have to define a person and while Balentien can move on, and Wednesday was a good step in that direction, it’ll take time, not home runs.

As is the case in such matters, there will be forgiveness in some circles and scorn from others. Some in the right-field stands will perhaps make their feelings known when the outfielder is playing defense, though likely more on the road than at home.

The last time NPB fans saw Balentien in the flesh was in December, when he was accepting the Central League MVP Award and joking around on stage with pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, the Pacific League MVP, about how a matchup between the two would play out. That came after his thrilling season-long pursuit of the single-season home run record (55), which he surpassed with 60 homers.

Then, earlier this month, the Swallows star was arrested in Florida after an argument with his wife, Karla, at their home. According to reports, police say Balentien entered the home through a dining-room window and grabbed his wife by the arm and locked her in a bedroom.

Balentien pleaded not guilty to domestic violence charges, made bail, and held a brief news conference in the U.S. to apologize for his actions. He later received permission from Miami-Dade County Circuit Court Judge Dennis J. Murphy to travel to Japan in time for the start of spring camp. On Wednesday, he apologized again.

“I’m here in front of you guys today because first of all, I just want to apologize to my fans, I want to apologize to the Yakult Swallows fans, I want to apologize to the organization, the Yakult Swallows, and I want to apologize to my teammates for the stuff that’s going on,” he said Wednesday.

Balentien is hardly the first, or sadly, last, athlete in this position. The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ Andruw Jones, for instance, dealt with something similar prior to the start of the 2013 season.

Jones was the highest-profile signing in recent NPB history, but the news of his troubles was dwarfed by the reaction in Japanese media to Balentien’s story.

The difference being Balentien was already established in Japan as a star player by the fans. He already belonged to the Japanese people and was a popular player, as opposed to Jones, who despite his superstar status in the majors was still a mystery in Japan.

Balentien was friendly, he was engaging, and most of all he played hard and delivered on the field. Those last two are usually more or less enough for fans, but Balentien went the whole nine yards. The downside of reaching such heights among the public, of course, is that it gives you further to fall.

The verdict in the court of public opinion lags far, far behind the feelings of Balentien’s family, the reaction of his teammates and organization, and the opinions of an actual court of law.

But being a public figure means being out among the public, and the fallout is something both Balentien and the Swallows will deal with as they begin camp in Okinawa and in the future as they move back to Tokyo for the start of the season and beyond.