The great and mighty Ba-su steps into a hotel elevator in Kobe, Japan, wearing jeans and cowboy boots. An elderly Japanese woman in the elevator is struck dumb. "Ba...Ba..." She can't get the rest of the word out. Her knees start to buckle, but she clings to the arm of her companion, who is gazing up at the 6'1", 210-pound American towering before him. "Ba-su!" he cries.
Randy Bass says nothing. Until recently he had lived an anonymous, itinerant baseball life: nine years in the minors, winter ball in Mexico, a total of 130 big league games over six seasons with Minnesota, Kansas City, Montreal, San Diego and Texas. His lifetime major league average was .212. He had nine career home runs. He was a Triple A superstar who never got much of a chance.
Now Bass is suddenly, at age 33, a two-time Triple Crown winner and hero in a land whose complexities he neither understands nor enjoys. He is stared at constantly. There was a papier-m‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢chè statue of him set up for good luck outside a Buddhist temple in Kobe. Even his beard is famous.
"Randy has succeeded in Japan to an extent no foreign player ever has," says Marty Kuehnert, an American-born broadcaster of Japanese baseball who calls games in both English and Japanese. "They don't want Americans to be their stars over here, but Randy has become one. He may be the only foreign player who has ever really been loved."
March 23, 1987
But love is never easy, and in this case it is full of storminess and bewilderment. Bass is a purebred Oklahoman, direct and proud and practical; to him fish belongs on a grill and chopped sticks go in the fireplace. So he is frustrated by a culture in which yes can mean no, and no can mean maybe and Western logic can mean nothing. Every few months Bass accidentally stomps through the delicate Japanese baseball code with his clumsy American feet, and the game's loyalists storm at him like angry gardeners whose flowers have been trampled. "Don't try to figure them out," Bass says of the Japanese. "You just get more confused."
The Hanshin Tigers pay Bass more than a million dollars a year to step up to the left side of the plate in his stiff-legged amble and pop home runs into the stands of tiny ballparks throughout Japan's Central League. He has become the most devastating American hitter in Japanese baseball history. Yet Bass confounds his hosts as thoroughly as they confound him. He refuses to learn their language. He shows little emotion. He is stubborn. His life, he insists, is his wife, Linda, and his two children and the Lawton, Okla., farm on which he grows wheat and raises horses and cattle. He says quietly that he hates Japanese ball.
But everywhere he goes in Japan, people gasp his name: Ba-su! It became a national mantra in 1985, when Bass, a first baseman, led the Tigers to their first league title in 21 years. He hit .350 with 54 homers and 134 runs batted in over only 126 games to win his first Triple Crown, then cracked three more homers as Hanshin defeated the Seibu Lions four games to two in the Japan Series. For his achievements Bass was awarded everything from a new car to a year's supply of rice. On baseball fields throughout the Kansai region in central Japan, little boys argued over who would be No. 44, the bearded slugger from America.
Last season Bass won the Triple Crown again, this time with 47 home runs, 109 RBIs and a .389 average, the highest in Japanese history. The Tigers fell to .500, however, and finished third in the Central League standings. It was rumored that the team's owner, the Hanshin Railway, didn't really mind the low finish because it did not want to reward the Tigers with raises two years in a row.
Now a new season is at hand, and Bass has flown off to Aki, Japan, for spring training. If he is to win an unprecedented third consecutive Triple Crown, Bass will have to outhit a cocky third baseman from the Chunichi Dragons named Hiromitsu Ochiai. Ochiai, 33, won the Triple Crown each of the last two years in Japan's less prestigious Pacific League, but he demanded so much money this winter that he was traded into the Central League. To the delight of his countrymen, Ochiai has declared that he cannot be stopped by any American, including Bass.
Only in Japan could this undercurrent of antiforeign sentiment blend so naturally with a flood of Ba-su mania. Sportswriters often use the phrase "Kami-sama, Hotoke-sama, Basu-sama" (God, Buddha, Bass). There are Randy Bass T-shirts, No. 44 flags, even 45-rpm records with the Tiger fight song on both sides and Bass's picture pressed in the yellow vinyl. Like Reggie Jackson, Bass had his name on a candy bar.
As for Bass's brown beard, Gillette paid him thirty million yen ($185,000) last year to shave it off for a Japanese ad campaign. Market research had shown it to be the most recognizable beard in Japan—just ahead of Ringo Starr's. Let it be, pleaded Hanshin officials, fearful Bass would jinx the team by shaving off his whiskers. Bass laughed all the way to the ginko.
Bass's popularity is due in part to Hanshin's large and favorable market. The team plays its home games just outside Japan's No. 2 city, the heavily industrial port of Osaka, and the Tigers are second only to the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo in nationwide adulation. Tiger supporters, most of them blue-collar workers, are legion and loyal and a touch loony. They are not unlike Cubs fans, proud of their perennial losers.
On game days pre-war Koshien Stadium has the vibrancy of big football games in the U.S. Fifty thousand fans dressed in Tiger black and yellow stand and sway and recite cheers before every pitch to the accompaniment of band music. They pound bowling-pin-shaped plastic megaphones into their open palms—thump! thump! thump!—and set loose a torrent of squealing, whining balloons to celebrate the seventh-inning stretch. The din is constant, and utterly unrelated to events of the game.
Bass blocks it out. Each Japanese team is allowed two foreigners, or gaijin, and Bass has outlasted four successive American teammates: Kim Allen, Steve Stroughter, Rich Olsen and Rich Gale. Bass has survived in Japan by learning to hit to left and to handle breaking balls, which is all he usually sees. "I'm a much better hitter than I was in the States," he insists.
At first glance this might seem the case of a big Bass in a small pond. He swings at fences no farther away than 394 feet in dead center and 309 feet down the lines. The baseballs are generally livelier, more tightly wound than American balls, and they're thrown by pitchers who in most cases would struggle to survive in the U.S. majors. Bass, who hit 220 homers in the minor leagues in the U.S., looks absolutely Ruthian at the plate in Japan, frightening the little infielders to the back edge of the skinned-dirt diamond. He settles into a straightaway stance, back from the plate, and swats apparently routine fly balls...that magically plink into the third row of bleachers.
Bass knows it's not that easy. Playing in Japan can be lonely and stressful. Yet he also understands why no big league team has made him a serious offer to come back to the U.S. "Sure I'd rather be doing this back there," he says. "But nobody's going to pay me this kind of money.... It's not like I'd be an established player coming back. I never got to play much in the majors. I never proved myself."
Bass says this with only a trace of sadness. He has been dealt more than his share of curveballs in his baseball life, and quite often has swung at them and missed. But one thing he has learned from the Japanese is to calmly sit down and await his next at bat.
"You see so many players coming through the system in the U.S., following all the rules, and they're sure that someday they'll get their fair chance," says Linda Bass, Randy's wife of 11 years. 'They're sure their day will come. But that's not always true." She searches for a thought, then shrugs. Her husband's day did come—in The Land of the Rising Sun.
It is September of 1986 in Japan, and Bass is counting the days until he can fly home to Lawton. At the plate he is flirting with .400 and wrapping up his second Triple Crown. Yet Ba-su is in trouble. "The team says I can't talk to you," he apologizes to an American writer at Koshien Stadium.
A sports daily has spelled it out in huge red letters: VERBAL POLLUTION BASS. Bass has been talking to Robert Whiting, the author of the definitive book on Japanese baseball, The Chrysanthemum and The Bat, and the interview appeared in Weekly Playboy, a Japanese magazine not associated with the Hugh Hefner publication. Bass, upset about his team's poor showing, told Whiting that the manager for Hanshin, Yoshio Yoshida, "doesn't seem to care" about the defeats, and that "I've never seen a manager make so many mistakes." The Tiger players, Bass said, don't like Yoshida very much.
Bass has simply been honest. But in Japan such feelings are to be kept quiet. Bass's life has been aswirl in petty controversies since the winter, when he openly asked Hanshin's owners for both a contract renegotiation and permission to arrive late for spring training. At the time, the owners felt betrayed and embarrassed. They grudgingly gave Bass a three-year deal worth a reported $3.25 million and told him he could arrive only two weeks late. (Japanese spring training, often held in cold-weather sites, lasts two full months.)
Now Ba-su has done it again. He has shattered the Japanese tenet of respect for the manager. He has given an unauthorized interview. He must pay. Bass is fined $3,000 by the team and told not to grant any more interviews.
Bass smiles at the visiting writer as they stand outside the Tiger clubhouse. Bass says he has recently read on the international news wire on his Apple He home computer—a machine he normally uses to calculate his farm budget—that the Padres have suspended reliever Rich Gossage for criticizing San Diego's management. "Me and Goose," he says, with a hint of pride. "Can't keep our mouths shut."
To be sure, unusual things have happened before to Bass in Japan. Going into the final two games of the '85 season, he was one home run away from tying the Japanese single-season home run record of 55 held by the legendary Sadaharu Oh. Hanshin happened to be playing both games against the Giants, who are managed by Oh. Bass got word that he was doomed. "Keith Comstock [the former Twin, then pitching for Yomiuri] told me that the Giant pitchers were threatened with $1,000 fines for every strike they threw me," says Bass.
In two games Bass walked eight times and didn't see a strike. In one at bat in the last game he lunged at an outside pitch and trickled a single up the middle. Even Giants fans booed. It is generally believed that Yomiuri's management, not Oh personally, ordered that Bass be walked. But Bass says he "lost respect" for Oh because of the incident. "Whenever we play the Giants." he says, "Oh seems almost obsessed with getting me out. It's as if that's all that matters to him."
The most anguishing time for Bass came in July of 1984, when his father, Fred, a building contractor, was hospitalized back in Oklahoma with heart problems. Bass flew home. "It was just after the All-Star break," Bass recalls. "He hung on for two weeks, then had a massive heart attack and died. He was kind of a workaholic. He had had two bypasses. He smoked unfiltered cigarettes for years—never gave them up until he went in the hospital to die." Bass stayed for the funeral and tried to regroup. "It was really hard," he says. "I couldn't get my mind back on baseball.... I hadn't had time to tell him how much he meant to me."
Incredibly, Bass came under public criticism for leaving his team in the middle of a season. "He took a lot of flak for it," says Kuehnert. "A lot of people thought he really didn't want to play over here." Fans remembered that when Oh's father had died, Oh had made only a brief appearance at the wake and then hurried back to the ballpark in time for that evening's game. When Bass finally returned, having been gone four weeks, he was asked by Japanese reporters why he hadn't returned sooner.
"Baseball to me is not more important than my family," Bass replied, his voice choked with emotion. "How can you put a game in front of somebody you love?" His words rang across the nation. The criticism stopped. It is said that upon hearing Bass talk of his father, many Japanese cried.
During the season Bass and his family live in a four-bedroom house on a hill overlooking Kobe, just 10 miles from Koshien Stadium. The Tigers pay the $3,300-a-month rent as well as the $5,000-a-semester tuition for Bass's children, Zachary, 6, and Staci, 4, to attend an English-speaking school. Before she leaves Oklahoma in March, Linda Bass packs dozens of video cassettes (American television programs are shown only two nights per week in Kobe), as well as boxes of Bisquick, packages of macaroni-and-cheese and bottles of Tylenol, all of which are extremely hard to find in Japan.
"Every time Randy hits a home run, the Japanese reporters ask me, 'What did you feed Mr. Bass to give him such strength?' " she says. "It's as if there has to be some reason for the homer. I usually say 'McDonald's.' "
The Japanese are especially curious about Bass's life before Japan. They sent TV people over to Lawton two years ago, and before long Bass had them out riding junior four-wheelers with the kids. "We took them up to the Wichita Mountains," says Bass. "They loved it. They thought it was like Mount Fuji."
Lawton, located 70 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, has a population of 90,000. Another 22,000 military personnel work at adjacent Fort Sill. It is a city of pawn shops and strip development that lives to the rhythm of artillery fire.
Bass grew up on F Avenue, just a softball toss from the railroad tracks. "If we did something wrong, Dad would make us go out at night and sit on the tracks," recalls Freddie Bass, 40, who owns the Orig-Equip vinyl-roofing shop and also manages his brother's 800 acres. 'There were hoboes out. It was pretty scary."
Randy knew about scary. At age five he walked out from behind an ice cream truck and was struck by a car. He was pinned beneath it, yet suffered only a broken nose. Several years later, as a sixth grader. Randy was riding in an old boat that some of his brother's friends were dragging along a dirt levee with their truck. The boat skidded into a pole and both of Randy's legs were shattered. His right femur jutted through the back of his thigh, causing extensive bleeding. The boy might have died if a station wagon hadn't happened by. Its driver used an old ironing board as a stretcher and got Randy to the hospital, where he lay for two months with the bones of his legs pinned together. He was in a body cast for six months after that. "Nobody ever thought I'd play baseball again," Bass says.
"Hell, nobody ever thought you'd walk" says his brother.
But Randy went on to become an all-state first baseman and tight end at Lawton High. He signed a letter of intent to play football at Kansas State and another to play baseball at Tulsa. When the Twins picked him in the seventh round of the 1972 draft, however, he accepted their offer of a $15,000 bonus and headed off to Melbourne, Fla., for rookie ball. Earning a salary of $500 a month, Bass worked as hard as any player in the league. He hit .307 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs in 59 games, and was the league's top player, better even than the likes of Gary Carter and Ellis Valentine. He continued to hit with power at Wisconsin Rapids, Lynchburg and Tacoma.
His winters were spent in Mexico, where he learned that life outside the United States can be considerably different. On the field he was pelted with cups of urine and ears of corn. Off the field it was worse. One night Bass and Rickey Henderson, who was then playing for Navojoa, went out to a local nightspot. "It was back in the days when it was in to wear big heels," says Bass. "Rickey had a pair of heels on that were about four inches high. Everything was fine until these people came in yelling that they had guns. Then they started shooting." Bass and Henderson ducked under a table as gunfire strafed the room. When the shooting ended, Henderson looked down and saw a bullet hole had gone all the way through the heel of his shoe. "If tall heels hadn't been popular, Rickey Henderson might have had his career ruined," says Bass.
Bass finally got called up to the Twins in September of 1977. In nine games he hit .105. He thought his chance might come the following spring, but Minnesota manager Gene Mauch didn't think much of him. He was sent down to Triple A for the fourth straight year. This time he refused to go. After trying to teach him a lesson by demoting him, step to step, to Class A, the Twins informed Bass he had been traded to Kansas City.
Bass agreed to go to Omaha, the Royals' Triple A club. In July 1978. Kansas City, racked by injuries to its infielders, called him up. Bass thought this might be his chance. "We went to Boston and Cleveland," he says. "I pinch-hit twice and went oh for 2. Then they traded for Jamie Quirk, and that was it. They sent me back down."
The next spring Bass was sent to Montreal. Dick Williams was managing there, and he didn't have a place for Bass, either. Bass spent the year with the Expos' Triple A club, Denver, and tore up the league, hitting .333 with 36 homers and 105 RBIs. He hoped those numbers might impress Williams. They didn't. The next spring he got another ticket to Denver. Williams didn't even bother to say goodbye. "Dick was working on a Lite beer commercial, so he had somebody else tell me," says Bass.
Bass, now 26, returned to the Mile High City and became the 1980 minor league Player of the Year. He hit .333 again, this time with 37 home runs and 147 RBIs in just 123 games. Meanwhile, one of his former minor league managers, Jack McKeon, had become the Padres' director of baseball operations. In August of 1980 McKeon traded pitcher John D'Acquisto for Bass, and Bass soon went into the lineup.
He homered in his first San Diego at bat. He was having an impressive September, but then he slid into home plate one day and tore cartilage in his left knee. He spent the off-season recovering from surgery.
The following spring San Diego manager Frank Howard promised that he would stick with the same young lineup for at least the first 50 games. Bass would be his first baseman. Unfortunately, both Bass and the Padres started off slowly. Bass, hitting .190 in April, was benched in favor of Broderick Perkins, who went on to bat .280. Bass appeared in 69 games and finished at .210.
Bass's big league career came to an end in 1982. He showed up in spring training to find that the Padres had hired a new manager. "Dick Williams," Bass says, shaking his head. He was waived to Texas, and the Rangers stuck him in the cleanup spot for a few games, then sat him on the bench. At the end of the year, Bass was told that he didn't fit into the team's plans.
That's when Alan Meersand, an agent who had negotiated deals to bring several other American players to Japan, entered the picture. He talked Bass into accepting an offer of an $875,000, two-year contract with the Hanshin Tigers.
"You know, Randy was just one of those guys who never seemed to be in the right place at the right time," says McKeon. "He was sort of like a Steve Balboni, somebody who needed to go to a team that had no first baseman. He needed a team that would stick with him. That just never happened to him." McKeon pauses. "But I'll tell you this. Randy always worked hard. He was one of the first guys at the ballpark. He didn't cheat himself."
That is randy bass's consolation. It counts for something, now. For his first year in Japan, Bass could not bring himself to look at an American box score, so badly did he miss what he had given up. Since then, he has accepted his lucrative turn of fate. After all, the money has allowed him to do what he had always wanted: to buy a farm.
"Green Acres," Bass says with a smile as he stands outside his house in Lawton. It is a February day. two weeks before Bass must leave for spring training. Three dogs are romping in the yard. A barn is being finished out back. Several young thoroughbreds nuzzle up to the fence where Bass and his brother are talking with their visitor.
"We've got two horses in Kentucky right now getting bred," says Freddie. "These two here"—he gestures—"will be racehorses, we hope. There's going to be a track in Oklahoma City in 1988, owned by that guy DeBartolo. That's what we're shooting for."
Loud chirping has begun in a nearby grove of pecan, oak and peach trees. "Did you ever hear those birds in Japan?" Bass asks, smiling. "Did you ever hear any birds in Japan?" Bass insists he never has.
A quick tour of town takes you past the Lawton Speedway, where until a year ago Bass raced an old Camaro on Saturday nights during the off-season. "Never won," he says. "I came in second once. The class I was in, I got $8." Bass has a 1931 Model A up on blocks in his brother's shop, a restoration project. "For after I retire," he says. "I've got two more seasons." Bass says he might try to hook on with a big league team when his Japanese contract expires in 1988, but "I'll wait and see."
He stops the truck by a field of cattle and goes to check on them. Midway across the rutted expanse. Bass stops. The bravest of the herd start to move closer to him. Others follow. Each has a B44 brand on its left side. Bass stands stock-still until he is surrounded. The animals stare at him. He raises a hand, and they back away, clumsily.
It is hard not to think back several months to the Kobe hotel elevator where Bass stood, stared-at and alien. As the cows crowd back around him, Bass seems lost in his thoughts. He must return to Japan soon. In the distance, the fields are showing green with the first sprouts of wheat.