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.
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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.