Japan's new home-run hero breaks barriers
Yakult Swallows outfielder Wladimir Balentien and the team mascot celebrate his 56th and 57th home run after a game in Tokyo on September 15, 2013.
When Wladimir Balentien, a 29-year-old former major-leaguer from Curacao, smacked his 56th and 57th home runs of the season on Sunday against the Hanshin Tigers, it ended a stubbornly defended mark which had stood for nearly 50 years.
It came just a few months after Japanese baseball chiefs were forced to admit to secretly introducing a new ball designed to bounce further off the bat, a move that has been credited with a surge in home runs.
The Yakult Swallows outfielder's exploits finally toppled the Japanese record of 55 homers in a season set by Sadaharu Oh, a legend of domestic baseball whose mark set in 1964 had withstood earlier challenges by foreign players -- and not always fairly.
In 1985, American Randy Bass reached 54 home runs with two games to play against the mighty Yomiuri Giants, Japan's fabled team then managed by Oh.
But every time Bass, of the Hanshin Tigers, stepped up to the plate at Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium, the Giants pitchers intentionally 'walked' him by throwing unhittable pitches, in an unsporting bid to preserve Oh's record.
"I was thinking I had two games left to break it. But we were playing the Giants and Sadaharu Oh was their manager," Bass told AFP in a telephone interview from his home in Oklahoma.
"I had no idea they were going to walk me. I thought that I would have an opportunity to break or tie the record. First time up, the catcher said 'gomennasai' (sorry) and I walked four pitches in a row."
The iconic Oh, Japan's answer to Babe Ruth, denied ordering his pitchers to walk Bass. But Keith Comstock, an American pitcher for the Giants, later revealed that one of the team's coaches had imposed a $1,000 fine for every strike thrown to Bass.
It was a similar story in 2001 when America's Tuffy Rhodes of the Kintetsu Buffaloes faced the Daiei Hawks, again managed by Oh, having reached 55 home runs to tie the record. Again the pitchers refused to throw strikes, and again Oh denied any collusion as Rhodes went homerless for the rest of the season.
However, Hawks battery coach Yoshiharu Wakana gave a revealing insight after the game, telling reporters: "It would be distasteful to see a foreign player break Oh's record."
Venezuela's Alex Cabrera also tied the record in 2002, and also saw good pitches dry up.
Balentien, with some 18 games still to play this season, now has the opportunity to put distance between his record and the mark set by Oh, who was quick to offer his congratulations.
"It's overwhelming that he has hit a home-run at a rate of one for every two games. I am looking forward to seeing how far he will go," said the 73-year-old.
In Balentien's favour this season was the secret introduction of a new ball designed to improve bounce off the bat, whose arrival was finally admitted in June after months of denials.
The ball, credited with a surge in home runs, was brought in after Japan spent two seasons with a much less bouncy ball. Homers had fallen to 939 in 2011 and 881 in 2012, compared with 1,605 in 2010.
But the most telling aspect of Balentien's record was the response from other teams and fans, who appeared unaffected by the prospect of one of Japan's most fabled marks falling to a foreigner.
Underhand tactics from opposing teams were notable by their absence, and fans of all persuasion got behind the Swallows slugger in his quest to make history, indicating a new, more inclusive attitude.
"I like the fact that the opposition team cheer for me, and they want somebody to take advantage and break the record," Balentien said last week, after tying Oh's mark.
"Every time I go up to the plate I can hear the whole stadium cheering for me and it gives me more motivation to get it done," added the former Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds player.
"Knowing the history of everything that happened before, just to get the opposing fans on your side cheering for you is showing you that they want baseball to get to the next generation.
"Forget about what happened a couple of years ago -- they just want somebody to go further and be the new single-season home run king."
Long-time journalist and broadcaster Marty Kuehnert believes the success of New York Yankees star Ichiro Suzuki, who has broken records in the United States, and other Japanese athletes abroad has helped change the mindset towards foreign players.
"Part of it has to do with the fact that Ichiro got the opportunity to be pitched fairly to in the US and set his records," he said. "It was very clear they were not pitching around him to prevent him getting the record.
"I think the success of Japanese abroad in sports like baseball, soccer and tennis has changed the mentality in recent years. I think that has probably changed the attitude of a lot of people."
With the original home run king's place in history long since secured, Bass, who so nearly broke the record in 1985, believes Japanese baseball can afford to move on.
"Sadaharu Oh has had that record for so long," Bass said. "He will be remembered as a legend in Japan, but records are there to be broken. There shouldn't be any silly games to stop that."