“Mr. Baseball” plays out for real in the Japanese Central League
I think I had this as an item a few weekends ago in the Roundup, but it’s a good story with a few twists that deserves its own space.
Over the last few weeks in Japanese Professional Baseball (NPB), a fringe MLB player from Curaçao named Wladimir Balentien of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows became the single season home run king in Japan, breaking the three-way tie between Sadaharu Oh (who is also the overall home run king in Japan with 868 homeruns), Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera, who all had 55.
As Balentien, who saw limited action with the Mariners and Reds, got closer to Oh’s magic number (and we’ll call it Oh’s number because that’s how the Japanese thought of it until last Sunday), there was fear that managers of other teams would not let their pitchers throw strikes to him, as happened both to Rhodes and Cabrera as they got closer to breaking Oh’s number.
As Rhodes and Cabrera got close to number 56 though, they both faced teams managed by Oh himself, who, of course, did not pitch to either man. Randy Bass, another player chasing the record, could only get to 54 home runs before he was frozen out by opposing pitching (again meeting up with Oh’s Tokyo Giants).
It was slightly different in the fictional world of Mr. Baseball, where Tom Selleck and his glorious mustache played an aging MLBer named Jack Elliot who is shipped off to Japan after losing his spot on the Yankees to a young phenom (played by a very young future MVP, Frank Thomas).
Once there, the culture clash proves to be a bigger hurdle than expected, causing him to frequently butt heads with teammates and his manager, Uchiyama (Ken Takakura), until, in Gung-Ho-like fashion, they hit rock bottom as a team and put their heads together, letting the Eastern style (tight, pragmatic) and Western style (loose, cowboyish) of baseball meet halfway. Elliot becomes a little more mindful of game situations and comes into harmony with the team, and the Japanese players learn to leave it all out on the field.
Uchiyama, like Oh, was an all-time great in the Japanese league, a slugger who willed himself to hitting a homerun in 7 consecutive games as his career was in its waning phase. To him, the game always seemed to slow down as he played, but like every aging play losing their quick twich muscles, it began to speed up until he could barely hold on. But players of that stature can still turn it back over short distances through sheer will. Uchiyama’s will became a league record, one that went unchallenged until Elliot finally settled in and figured out the vagaries, etiquette of Japanese life and the break on Japanese pitching.
As they reach the climactic game, Elliot tells a TV interviewer that he thinks Uchiyama would be all for his breaking the illustrious record if it meant beating the rival Tokyo Giants, but the interview shakes his head, unsure, probably remembering old Randy Bass and how close he came to breaking Oh’s record for real.
“They don’t like Gaijin breaking their records,” an opposing first baseman, also American, tells Elliot. “There’s a thousand dollar fine for every strike they throw you,” he continues, and Elliot is intentionally walked every time he comes up.
As things unfold in the final game, Elliot comes up in a spot with runners on, where it would be too dangerous to walk him. The pragmatic play is for him to take one for the team and move the runner along, but Uchiyama, his job on the line, realizes what the game and the team means, and gives him the sign to swing away — record be damned.
Despite the angst the surrounded the chase for the record, the number that Balentien has put up seems to be well respected across Japanese baseball, much as Ichiro Suzuki’s 4,000 hits across NPB and MLB have been embraced by American baseball fans (except Pete Rose, who is being kind of a dick about it).
But a twist emerged less than a week after Balentien hit his 56th homerun, when the commissioner of NPB, Ryozo Kato, announced that he’ll step down from his post at the end of the season, admitting that the current official NPB ball (made by Mizuno) was juiced to go farther, and make the game more exciting, not unlike the official MLB ball from Rawlings. (Saraharu Oh was the first name touted as a replacement, but he shot the rumors down.)
We always think of Babe Ruth hitting homeruns in what we call the “dead ball era“, when the ball was little more than a balled-up pair of socks with some cork in there for good measure, but the ball was juiced in the twenties too, according the Zack Hample’s book, The Baseball. After supplies became available again following WWI, the ball was made with high grade yarn wound extra tight, and either rubber or cork on the core. But Ruth still had to do it 60 times. He did it on hot dogs and beer, and that alone. And no one else did. Whole teams didn’t even come close to his solo number. Certainly no one is going to take anything away from Ruth, and no one should take anything away from Balentien either. Balentien still had to actually do it too, and he did.
In the movie it was a smaller, less significant homerun record, but it makes for an interesting parallel to match the times and emotions. Baseball is our legacy; even if it’s not the biggest sport in the country or the world, it’s become the measuring stick for how we relate as humans and measure how far we come in the popular imagination. It’s a tough game, one that’s all about balance. Even though Elliot got the sign to swing away, he did the pragmatic thing and bunted. The play left he and Uchiyama tied for the record, but helped the Dragons win an important game against the Giants in a less risky way. Balentien gleefully trashed Oh’s record, hitting his 57th homerun in the next at bat (and moved on to 58 this week), but it was the only joy for Swallows fans all season, as they sit in dead last. Last night, their Tokyo rivals, the Giants, clinched the division.