For most Westerners, the name Sadaharu Oh means little unless put in the context of a Beastie Boys song, but in Japan, Oh’s name is met with the type of reverence generally reserved (in America, anyway) for those much more influential than baseball players.
With 868 career home runs, Oh is Japan’s all-time dinger king (not to mention the all-time leader in runs, RBI, walks, on-base percentage — the list goes on), and in the 1964 season, he hit a record 55 home runs for the Yomiuri Giants, with whom he spent his entire 22-year career.
For 49 years, Oh’s record has stood unbroken — though not without controversy. However, it appears 2013 will finally be the year that someone sets a new mark. And that man will be major league flameout Wladimir Balentien.
Once a highly-regarded prospect in the Mariners system, Balentien hit 15 career home runs in 170 games between Seattle and Cincinnati before heading to the Far East. Since 2011, he has been making a living as a power-hitting outfielder for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
In his first year in the Nippon League, Balentien belted 31 homers and drove in 76 runs in 140 games. Last year, he equaled that 31-homer mark, but did so in just 106 games while totaling 81 RBI.
This year, however, Balentien has seen a huge increase in his power production, and on Wednesday, he tied Oh’s all-time mark of 55 home runs with this opposite-field blast:
With 21 regular season games left, Balentien seems all but a lock to break Oh’s record, but this is where things get a little tricky.
On three separate occasions over the years a player has appeared set to break Oh’s hallowed mark, only to have poor sportsmanship derail that quest.
In 1985, Randy Bass hit his 54th home run for the Hanshin Tigers with two games left in the regular season. Unfortunately, his final two games came against the Yomiuri Giants, who were managed by Oh at the time. As Jack Gallagher, the executive sports editor of the Japan Times wrote in an article for Sports on Earth, Bass “saw nothing resembling a strike” in the final two games.
“In the final game, Bass was walked intentionally four times, each on four straight pitches,” Gallagher wrote. “Oh denied he ordered his pitchers to walk Bass, but Keith Comstock, an American pitcher for the Giants, said that a Giants coach imposed a fine of $1,000 for every strike thrown to Bass.”
In 2001, Tuffy Rhodes — best remembered for hitting three of his 13 career home runs for the Cubs on Opening Day 1994 — tied Oh’s mark of 55 with a home run off Daisuke Matsuzaka, but struggled to find hittable pitches the rest of the season. The same thing happened to Alex Cabrera in 2002 after he hit his 55th home run for the Seibu Lions.
Both players, Gallagher notes, faced the Daiei Hawks down the stretch. Daiei’s manager? Sadaharu Oh.
So what is expected to be different this time with Balentien just one round-tripper from setting a new single-season mark? For starters, public opinion regarding the prospect of any player — Japanese or otherwise — breaking Oh’s record seems to be changing.
A recent New York Times feature on the subject of Oh’s record cites a survey done by a Japanese business publication that found that "69 percent of its 1,300 respondents said they were enthusiastic about Balentien’s bid to surpass Oh, and 27 percent said they were resigned to a new home run king. Fewer than one percent of respondents said that Balentien needed to be stopped at all costs."
It’s certainly a paradigm shift from the way things used to be — especially with regard to foreign players like Balentien, who hails from the small Caribbean nation of Curaçao, setting the new mark. And there are a couple of good reasons for the change in opinion. Part of it has to do with Oh fading from the Japanese baseball spotlight after retiring from managing in 2008.
“He is no longer a visible presence in the stadium,” Japanese baseball commentator Takamichi Yamada told The New York Times, implying that it eases the pressure to preserve Oh’s records. “That’s a big change.”
It also might very well have something to do with Ichiro.
“I think the Japanese learned something when they saw that the Americans didn’t prevent Ichiro from breaking any of their records,” Robert Whiting, an author of several books on Japanese baseball, told The Times. “There was none of these shenanigans, and the fans cheered him on.”
So it appears Wladimir Balentien will, at some point over the next few weeks, break Oh’s record, in large part because he’ll be getting strikes to hit — though his 54th home run showed us he doesn’t need strikes to hit the ball out.
There will still be questions about the impact ball-juicing has had on Balentien’s power numbers — not to mention elevated marks all across Japanese baseball — but at least the controversy surrounding Oh’s exalted, but phony home run record will no longer be steeped in politics.