The single-season home-run record in Japanese baseball has been somewhat of a touchy subject for quite some time. Many associate the record of 55 with legendary Yomiuri Giants slugger Sadaharu Oh.
The dirty little not-so-secret being that the two other players to have hit 55 in a single season may have had more if not for concerted efforts to keep the record out of foreign hands.
Eight years since the last assault on the home-run mark, another Japanese icon is in danger of seeing his record bested by a foreign player. And there’s certain to be more than a few interested parties watching to see how it all plays out before the Central League’s regular season ends on Oct. 9.
Hanshin Tigers outfielder Matt Murton is barreling toward Ichiro Suzuki’s single-season hits record of 210, which Ichiro set in 1994, a 130-game season, as a member of the Orix BlueWave. Murton began Thursday with 205 hits and Tokyo Yakult Swallows star Norichika Aoki hot on his heels with 202.
As Murton nears the record during a 144-game season — and especially if he surpasses it — with Aoki giving chase, will he continue to see pitches he can hit, or suddenly find the walks coming a little more often?
Just a little under a decade ago, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see Murton staring at balls nowhere near the plate in an effort to keep him from either passing the mark, or to allow Aoki to catch up.
That’s pretty much what happened in the past when Randy Bass, Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera became clear threats to Oh’s home-run mark.
“During the attempts on Oh’s record, in all three cases, the teams trying to stop the gaijin had an interest in protecting Oh,” author Robert Whiting said in an e-mail. “Oh is not a Japanese citizen, but he was born and raised here and I like to call him a situational Japanese, or an honorary Japanese.”
Bass, a hulking, bearded Oklahoman playing for the Hanshin Tigers in the mid-’80s, neared the mark in 1985 and went into the season’s final series against the Giants, who were managed by Oh at the time, with 54.
One blast away from equaling Oh, Bass never saw a pitch remotely near the plate the entire weekend and at one point had been intentionally walked four straight times.
Oh has steadfastly denied any involvement in attempting to keep the record from Bass, or anyone else.
“In the case of Bass, the opponent on the last day was the Giants,” Whiting said. “Oh was the manager and the 55 homers were considered a team record. Team officials and coaches didn’t want anyone (foreign or Japanese) to break it. But to add context, you also had a commissioner (Takeso) Shimoda, who was a former ambassador to the U.S., saying gaijin didn’t belong in the Japanese game, three years before, as did his successor, (Juhei) Takeuchi in 1987.”
The next player to challenge the mark was Rhodes, the former Chicago Cub who made his debut for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1996.
An affable slugger and to this day one of the few foreigners to attempt to learn the language and try to understand Japanese culture, Rhodes was enjoying a good career in Japan when everything came together in 2001.
After equaling the record, Rhodes was pitched around during a late-season matchup with the Daiei Hawks, managed by Oh at the time. As with Bass’ situation, there seemed to be an overt ploy to deny Rhodes the chance to break the record and become the sole leader.
While there were many, including then-NPB commissioner Hiromori Kawashima, who spoke out decrying the tactics, it didn’t stop the same thing from happening again the very next season.
Cabrera, currently with the Orix Buffaloes, had made stops in the majors, Mexico and Taiwan before landing with the Seibu Lions in 2001. He hit the ground running, finishing second only to Rhodes with 49 home runs.
Cabrera tied the the record with 11 games left in the 2002 season. Like Rhodes, Cabrera then found himself in a late-season series against Oh’s Hawks and was not given anything remotely hittable.
Which again caused claims that he wasn’t given a fair shot, taking a little more of the shine off what was once a hallowed record.
“With Tuffy and Cabrera, the big roadblock was the Hawks,” Whiting said. “Oh was the manager there and the front office and coaches naturally didn’t want anyone (foreign or Japanese) to break Oh’s record. It would have taken away the cachet Softbank had by association. But there were still (those) who said they didn’t want a gaijin to break a ‘Japanese record.’
“The operative quote, ‘We don’t want a gaijin to break the record, etc.’ was uttered by Yoshiharu Wakana, the battery coach, who ordered his pitchers not to throw anything hittable to Tuffy.”
As Murton nears Ichiro’s mark, and as Aoki tries to chase him down, the question becomes, will he get a fair shake at becoming the record holder?
The attitude in the Japanese game has changed since those episodes to be sure. In addition to a host of players, there have been a number of foreign managers — four of the 12 teams were managed by Americans at the outset of the 2007 season — and the graciousness bestowed upon Ichiro during his run at the MLB hits record in 2004 was widely lauded in Japan.
Not to mention his main rival, Aoki, is considered by many, foreign and Japanese alike, to be one of the “good guys” of the game and would likely be against any signs of unfairness.
“Frankly during the Tuffy/Cabrera era, I didn’t think anyone would make gaijin breaking a record an issue,” Whiting said. “I thought Japanese had gotten over that. After all, you had (Hideo) Nomo going to the U.S., being popular, accepted. But apparently not everyone had. On the other hand I never thought Hideki Matsui would actually leave the Giants for MLB, but he did.”
“I’m tempted to say that kind of discrimination doesn’t exist anymore, given, the fact that Ichiro was treated with such equanimity. Also, there is the fact that (Ryozo) Kato is commissioner and he is one of the more fair-minded, internationally-minded people around. I think he would speak out.
“But who knows? There are still limits on foreign participation in the All-Star games here. What’s that about? Murton should be glad he doesn’t have to face Orix. But they do have a game against Yakult. And Aoki, Murton’s rival for the hits record, plays for them.”