Wladimir Balentien still remembers all the running.
Balentien spent his first day in a Tokyo Yakult Swallows uniform in a constant state of motion. There was so much running, even on Day 1, he almost couldn’t believe it. Balentien had arrived in Japan to play baseball, but maybe he’d stumbled upon an ultra-marathoning group that just liked to hit the ball around sometimes during breaks.
“I’d never run so much in my life,” Balentien told The Japan Times. “I didn’t think I would survive over here.”
That was in the spring of 2011. Balentien, of course, survived the Yakult Olympic trials. He’s still surviving, thriving even, as he nears the end of his ninth season in Japan. Late last month, he became the 503rd player in NPB history to play in 1,000 games. He’s been around so long now that if he returns next year he’ll no longer count as a foreign player for roster purposes.
After playing for MLB’s Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds, Balentien has enjoyed the type of longevity few foreign players achieve in Japan.
“That means a lot,” he said. “All the good work I’ve been putting in, discipline, patience, trying to learn the Japanese way, Japanese culture, Japanese baseball, I had to put all those things together to be able to achieve that.”
Balentien’s accomplishments on the field speak for themselves. He’s hit 284 home runs in Japan, 47th-most all time and third-most among active players. Among players born outside Japan, only Tuffy Rhodes (464 home runs), Alex Ramirez (380) and Alex Cabrera (357) have more. Balentien is also the owner the NPB single-season mark, setting the record with 60 in 2013.
He’s hit at least 30 homers each season in which he’s played at least 100 games, only missing the mark during an injury-shortened 2015 campaign. He’ll extend that streak with one more homer this year.
“When I came here, what I put as one of my goals was to be able to play 10 years or more. I’m thankful to already have nine,” Balentien said. “My other goal was to try to be one of the best power hitters to ever play the game here as a foreigner.
“I’m right there, but there are a couple of guys who did it before me, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to get there. But I just want to put my name there, like Tuffy Rhodes. If I’m healthy and able to play, I don’t know how far I’ll get, but just to put my name in the top four (among foreign players) is something very special for me.”
The 35-year-old Willemstad, Curacao, native is hitting .279 with 29 homers this season.
He has a career .273 average, .919 on-base plus slugging percentage and 751 RBIs in Japan. He also has 946 hits, putting 1,000 firmly in his sights.
It hasn’t been easy to put up those numbers, either.
“It’s hard because it’s not just the Japanese pitching,” he said. “You have to adjust to the strike zone too. It’s too hard and complicated to explain, but you have to be ready to hit. I tell myself some days, it doesn’t matter what the pitcher tries to do to you, just be aggressive and be ready to swing on pitches that are not strikes. That’s the only way you can survive sometimes. It’s day-to-day, AB (at-bat)-to-AB, you gotta figure it out and try to make adjustments.”
As for the NPB pitcher who’s given Balentien the most trouble through the years, well, that might surprise some people.
“Everybody knows (Tomoyuki) Sugano is a good pitcher, so I have some tough times hitting against him,” he said, referring to the Yomiuri Giants ace.
“But I think my hardest pitcher so far was (former BayStars pitcher Shigeru) Kaga. I was like 0-for-22, 0-for-23 before I got a hit off of him. Sometimes it’s not the ace pitcher, It’s just a matchup where some hitter doesn’t really see the ball well from some pitcher. I think he was one of the pitchers that gave me the most hard times.”
One of more impressive parts of Balentien’s longevity is he’s only played for one team to this point, completing game No. 1,007 for Yakult on Sunday.
“They were patient with me, they gave me a lot of chances to play,” Balentien said. “If they didn’t give me all those chances, if they weren’t patient with me, maybe I wouldn’t be able to have this career I’m having.”
Balentien is one of the Yakult veterans now, comfortably joking around and interacting with his teammates, even in Japanese, another byproduct of lasting so long.
“I’m definitely more comfortable than I was in my first year,” he said. “You have to go through that process in your career over here to survive and play so long.
“We are thousands and thousands of miles away from home and we don’t have our families. So most of the time, those guys are your family. If you try to adjust to them, get yourself in the group, love them, let them love you, then they will make you feel at home. That will make you more comfortable and you’ll be able to play without thinking that you’re thousands of miles away from home.”