Posted September 12, 2013

Ex-Mariner Wladimir Balentien ties Sadaharu Oh’s single-season home run record in Japan

Nippon Professional Baseball, Wladimir Balentien
Wladimir Balentien

Waldimir Balentien gave little hint of what was to come this year when he played for the Netherlands at the World Baseball Classic. (AP)

Wladimir Balentien hit his 55th home run of the season for the Yakult Swallows on Wednesday night, tying Japan’s single-season home run mark set by the legendary Sadaharu Oh in 1964, and tied by American Tuffy Rhodes in 2001 and Venezuelan Alex Cabrera in ’02. With 22 games remaining on the Swallows schedule, Balentien seems like a lock to finally break what is still largely considered Oh’s record.

It’s no coincidence that Rhodes and Cabrera — both of whom played briefly in the major leagues prior to their long, successful careers in Japan — finished with exactly 55 homers. Oh’s record has long been held sacred, both because of his stature as the greatest Japanese player of all time and because of the long-held biases against foreign players, or gaijin. More to the point, however, Oh remained in the game as a manager and, out of pure chance, that directly impacted the pursuits of his record by Rhodes, Cabrera and American Randy Bass, who hit 54 home runs in 1985: All were walked repeatedly by Oh’s teams (the Yomiuri Giants in ’85, and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in ’01 and ’02).

On all three occasions, they faced an Oh-managed team near the very end of the season. But none reached the record as early in the season as Balentien has. In 1985, Bass hit number 54 with just two games left in a 130-game season (Oh, Rhodes, Cabrera and Balentien all reached that mark in a 140-game season), with both remaining games coming against Oh’s Giants. The Giants pitched to Bass in his first three at-bats in the penultimate game, but gave him nothing to hit thereafter and reportedly were threatened by one of their own coaches with a $1,000 fine for any strike they threw to Bass in the final game.

Rhodes tied Oh with a week and a half left in the 2001 season and had plenty of chances to hit number 56 against other teams, but was given nothing to hit when he faced Oh’s Hawks on the season’s final weekend because, as Hawks coach Yoshiharu Wakana admitted, “It would be distasteful to see a foreign player break Oh’s record.”

The next year, Cabrera had five games left after hitting number 55. He, too, ran into Oh’s Hawks. Oh supposedly told his pitchers to throw strikes to Cabrera, but loyalty to their manager, or fear of the shame of giving up number 56, led to Cabrera being pitched around as well.

Oh has since retired, and Balentien needs just one more home run in his next 22 games to finally break the record. However, this chase is also somewhat tainted as Nippon Professional Baseball secretly introduced a livelier ball this season, a fact which came to light in June.

JAFFE: A juiced baseball scandal in Japan

Through the middle of June, NPB home runs were up by more than 40 percent over 2012, according to a New York Times report. It seems the league overcorrected for the deader ball introduced for the 2011 season. Remarkably, 2011 was the first season in which the same ball was used throughout NPB, which means that livelier balls very well may have been used by teams in previous seasons, including ’64, ’85, ’01 and ’02, but because of the controversy surrounding this year’s ball, that particular criticism will stick only to Balentien’s record.

For what it’s worth, in each of his previous two seasons in Japan, both with the Swallows, Balentien hit 31 home runs with what came to be called the “noncarrying” ball, and he regularly hit 20-plus home runs in the American minor leagues. He hit 15 home runs in 170 games over three seasons in the majors with the Mariners and Reds. Now 29, the Curacao native is right around his natural peak, and his 31 homers in 2012 came in just 106 games. If you project those 31 home runs over the full 140-game schedule and then increase that total by the 40 percent that home runs have increased league-wide, you get 57 home runs. Balentien, however, seems likely to blow by even that figure given the time he has left, the absence of Oh from the game and the increasingly relaxed attitudes toward gaijin in the NPB.

When Balentien does hit number 56, it will mark the second iconic Japanese record to fall to a gaijin in the last three years. In 2010, former Cubs outfielder Matt Murton, in his first year in Japan, collected 214 hits for the Hanshin Tigers, breaking the record of 210 set by Ichrio Suzuki in 1994 (in, it should be noted, a 130-game season). That Murton was allowed to break that record was an encouraging sign of the increased acceptance of foreign-born players in NPB. Balentien, however, is hitting home runs at such a rate that the league will soon have no choice but to accept him as its new single-season home run champion.

20 comments
GhostInTheMachine7
GhostInTheMachine7

I'm so glad MLB decided to fawn over Ichiro when he got his 4,000th "professional" hit, even though a good chunk of those were in Japan, because they wanted to avoid appearing biased agains the Japanese leagues as inferior. Now we find out the Japanese league is full of anti-foreigner bigots that will do anything to avoid honoring an American for an on-field accomplishment. What a bunch of double standard nonsense the P.C. mindset has created

bluedragon
bluedragon

the ball in japan this season is like hitting a super ball. its ridiculous. to me thats way less legitimate than using steroids to break a record. they are using modified equipment to manufacture the record. might as well let the guy hit w/ a metal bat too

nonix81
nonix81

Lol I can image when he does hit the record-breaker, all the players will take the bases and shoot them into space so he'll never touch 'em.

holycalamity
holycalamity

re: juiced balls

It's worth pointing out that Oh hit 55 home runs with compressed bats that were banned in MLB at the time, and were soon banned in Japan as well.

JosephBagadoughnutz
JosephBagadoughnutz

are all the woman raped and babies killed in the western pacific "sacred"

BillCampbell
BillCampbell

He didn't just start hitting home runs. He is just one of the many talented people that Seattle gave up on, including Adam Jones and Michael Morse. 

Vinny Cordoba
Vinny Cordoba

I always said that if he stayed healthy and waited on his pitches, Wladimir Balentien would one day threaten the Japanese record for most homers in a season. God, I'm smart.

doublejtrain68
doublejtrain68

The Japanese don't like gaijin breaking their records, especially ones like that. He better just sit and yawn at the plate, because he will get NOTHING to hit the rest of the season. 

Charlie P
Charlie P

Jeez, this guy had 15 career homeruns and was a .221 hitter in MLB.  Nothing like reviving a career in NPB.

OwenCaterwall3
OwenCaterwall3

Is it not true that Sadaharu Oh is in fact of Chinese extraction? The japanese are well known for their racist attitudes towards non-Japanese so there is some irony in their protection of Oh's record.

JoeNash
JoeNash

Average players going over and becoming stars.  Not sure there is much parity between their league and ours.

UleNotknow
UleNotknow

They'll do nothing but walk him to prevent him from taking the record away from Oh. Wait and see.

EasyGoer
EasyGoer

Yes, he is part Chinese.

John NoLastName
John NoLastName

@JoeNash I don't think anyone ever said there was. The average NPB player is universally considered not as good as the average MLB player, but the best NPB players are legitimate Major Leaguers.

D.j.Johnson
D.j.Johnson

@UleNotknow Then his OBP is going to be 1.000 and his team will sweep everyone for the last twenty games.  

I wonder why they're proud of a record they have to cheat to keep.

John NoLastName
John NoLastName

@D.j.Johnson @UleNotknow It's hardly "cheating" to pitch around a hitter, whatever your reason.

Nonetheless, if you're going to allow a player in your league, then you have to accept the fact that he could break your records. He's either a bona fide player or he's not.