After Bob (the red devil) Horner's first six games in Japan, the question besieging the proud and clannish world of Japanese baseball was simple: Short of dumping a load of microchips on the Yakult Swallows' new macro-slugger, is there any way to stop him?
One TV network reported that Horner is susceptible to "vertical breaking pitches," even as he was hitting .533 with six homers in that six-game stretch. A Hiroshima Carp coach threatened to "disrupt the Red Devil mentally with a succession of bunts aimed in his direction." With even more imagination, Hanshin Tigers leftfielder Noriyoshi Sano says, "I'll put springs on my spikes, leap up and catch the ball" before it sails over the fence. And if these strategies fail, there's always the so-called science-fiction pitch of 19-year-old Tokyo Giants hurler Masumi Kuwata. He calls it the sandaboru, or thunderball, actually a garden-variety split-fingered fastball.
To fans of the Swallows, heretofore the Cleveland Indians of the Central League, Horner isn't the petulant Brave who refused Ted Turner's three-year, $3.9 million offer this winter. He's a savior, a kurinappu (cleanup) hitter and a human trade imbalance whose heroics helped bring the Swallows to within 2½ games of the first-place Giants. Last week Yakult manager Junzo Sekine could only repeat "Sugoi!"—a word, normally reserved for samurai swordsmen and Kurosawa movies, meaning both awful and wonderful.
Horner's face graced the front pages of Japan's seven sports dailies nearly every day last week. Three different networks interrupted their popular telecasts of Giants games for "Horner Corner" video updates on his latest at bat. The inevitable commercial—for a vegetable drink called Toughman—is in the works. Said one Swallows fan, "I'm so happy I could die. I have never seen a foreigner like this before. He'll hit 50 homers and we'll win the pennant."
May 17, 1987
Imported sluggers are hardly new to Japan. Frank Howard, Dick Stuart and Reggie Smith all went to the Land of the Rising Sun after their own suns had begun to set. But Horner is 29, a home run hitter in his prime. Swallows owner Hisami Matsuzono, a soft-drink tycoon, lured the slugger out of a free-agent funk with a reported $1.3 million salary for this season—more than twice what the highest-paid Japanese star gets—plus all living expenses. Unconfirmed reports place Horner's signing bonus at $500,000 and suggest he'll bag even more if he breaks Sadaharu Oh's single-season home run record of 55.
Considering the slow starts expatriate Americans normally endure, Horner's debut is all the more remarkable. Former Expo Warren Cromartie, now with the Tokyo Giants, says it took him five months to adapt to Japan's wider and higher strike zone. Even Randy Bass, the ex-Padre who has won two straight Central League Triple Crowns as a Hanshin Tiger, spent much of his first season shortening his stroke and learning to go the other way.
After Horner signed, the press dredged up his reputation for weight problems, injuries and beer swilling, and pounced on him when he claimed a sore shoulder and refused to take infield practice, REBELLION! screamed the headline in Sports Nippon, THE SELFISH $1.5 MILLION SLUGGER! None of this fazed Matsuzono, who issued uniform No. 50 to Horner lest anyone forget what he had been imported for. And in the fifth inning of his debut against Hanshin, a 5-3 Swallows victory, Horner got to work by poking an outside fastball over the rightfield fence. The next night, in another Yakult victory, Horner was more emphatic. He jacked two line drives over the leftfield fence and another over the wall in center. (To be sure, Japanese walls and fences are close, and range from 295 to 309 feet down the lines and 381 to 394 in center.) "He can hit a pitch in any location," said former star Tetsuji Kawakami, Japan's equivalent of Ted Williams. The fabled Oh, now the Giants' manager, said he wouldn't permit his players to watch film of the Red Devil at bat: "I don't want to scare them."
Horner earned further Brownie points by giving Matsuzono the bat he used for his first four homers. A translation of Horner's inscription on the lumber—MR. MATSUZONO: THANKS FOR EVERYTHING. I HOPE TO HIT SOME MORE. YOUR FRIEND, BOB HORNER—ran in the papers. Could there have been some mistake here? Was this really...Dale Murphy?
Swallows officials were relieved that their gaijin [foreigner] seemed content. In previous years Joe Pepitone and Don Money had bolted their Japanese teams in-season for one reason or another. Taking no chances, Matsuzono has lodged Horner and his family in a three-bedroom "mansion" apartment.
Horner's sensational start has caused more than a little soul-searching in Japanese baseball circles. Even if he stays only one season—it's believed he'll return to the U.S. to qualify for his major league pension—an entirely new precedent for signing mercenaries has been set. "What will happen to our traditional style, with its emphasis on group harmony and hard training?" lamented one columnist last week. "Americans don't care about things like that. We will gradually lose our own game, and that would be terrible." Added commissioner Juhei Takeuchi, 78, a sort of Judge Mount Fuji Landis, "If Japanese baseball keeps trying to acquire high-priced free agents, we will be thrown into chaos. There isn't much we can learn from foreigners, and it's time we stopped trying."
Several veteran gaijin warn Horner that such xenophobic fears have a way of manifesting themselves on the field. As the season progresses, the Red Devil will have to keep cool. "They'll start walking him all the time," Bass told ST correspondent Robert Whiting. "If he's patient and lets them, he'll be fine. But you get tired of waiting. That's when you have problems."
When Bass pulled to within one home run of Oh's single-season mark in '85, he was walked eight times without seeing a strike in his final two games—which happened to come against Oh's own Giants. It is said that Giants management had threatened to fine its pitchers $1,000 for every strike they threw Bass. "Just wait until the pitchers and umpires start in on Horner," says Cromartie. "It's the nature of the game when gaijin are involved. It's just a matter of time before some conflict erupts."
But the enthusiasm over Horner's tear served as a reminder of how time can resolve conflicts, too. GIs returning from World War II told of Japanese soldiers who tried to insult them by saying: "To hell with Babe Ruth." After one giddy week, die-hard followers of the Yakult Swallows can only say, "Thank heaven for Bob Horner."