Sadaharu oh leaned across the table in a Tokyo sushi restaurant one recent evening and paid his American guest, Warren Cromartie, the ultimate compliment. "You've completely mastered Japanese baseball," said the man who hit a record 868 home runs, as he hoisted a glass of beer in toast.
It was an extraordinary tribute, the kind a gaijin ballplayer seldom hears. But then few players, Japanese or otherwise, have ever had a season quite like Kuromattie-san has had this year. As of Sunday, Cromartie—a former outfielder for the Montreal Expos, now in his sixth season with the Yomiuri Giants—was leading Japan's Central League in batting, with an average of .404. If he keeps it up, he could become the first player in the 54-year history of Japanese professional baseball to hit .400 in a season and, in the process, break the current record of .389 set by another American import, Randy Bass, in 1986.
Cromartie is by far the most successful of this year's crop of Americans, which includes first baseman Cecil Fielder (.301, 35 homers) and outfielder Larry Parrish (.270, 27 homers). Since joining the Giants in 1984, Cromartie has averaged 28 homers a season and has hit for a .315 career batting average, making him the most productive American hitter in his team's history.
He credits Oh, manager of the Giants from 1984 to '88, for much of his success. "Oh-san is the best batting coach I've ever had," says Cromartie. One trick Japan's fabled slugger taught him was to take batting practice with a book under his elbow to correct a hitch in his swing.
Another reason for Cromartie's rise has been his ability to adapt to a brand of baseball many American players find perplexing. "It takes a certain mentality to make it in Japan," he says. "The strike zone is bigger, and there are more breaking pitches. They'll throw you two quick strikes, then three straight balls, then a curve on the outside corner. You have to shorten your swing. And you have to learn to think backward."
Life in the land of besaboru has not always gone smoothly for Cromartie. In the past, critics faulted him for his defensive lapses and his flashy manner—a grievous sin in deportment-conscious Japan. In 1987 he was suspended and fined for engaging in fisticuffs with a Chunichi Dragon pitcher who hit him in the back. The next time the Giants played in Nagoya, it took more than 200 security guards to protect him from the angry fans.
Cromartie has silenced many of his critics with a number of memorable performances, such as the time late in 1986 when he got up from the hospital bed in which he had spent the night recovering from a beaning, went to the park and slammed a pinch-hit grand slam to keep the Giants' pennant hopes alive. "We know most gaijin are only here for the money," says noted baseball author Masayuki Tamaki. "But Cromartie has shown he has guts."
That Giants fans, who traditionally prefer their heroes homegrown and stoic, have come to accept the exuberant Cromartie is perhaps his biggest accomplishment to date. His habit of raising his fist in the air after hitting a home run was once thought offensive by many old-line Giants supporters. Now Cromartie's gattsu pozu ("guts pose"), as it is called, is copied by all his teammates.
Moreover, Cromartie's penchant for leading cheers has become a personal trademark. In an early-season game against the Yokohama Taiyo Whales, for example, he blasted a dramatic game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth, then faced the stands, bowed and shot his arms into the air, leading thousands of spectators in a rousing chorus of "banzai!" Says Tamaki, "Ten years ago, such behavior by Giants fans would have been unimaginable."
Cromartie, 35, has announced his intention to retire at the end of the season to pursue a career as a rock musician. "Japan's been good to me, but the constant grind gets to you," he says. "We got back from Hiroshima a few weeks ago after losing two out of three games. It's about 100 degrees outside, and we head straight from the airport to the practice field. There's no such thing as a day off in Japanese baseball." Indeed, the main reason he is doing so well this year, he says, is that he knows he won't have to put up with Japanese-style "work ball" after this season.
Yet many doubt he will quit. He is the favorite for MVP—a rare honor for a foreigner. And he is being featured in a series of prime-time TV commercials for Kirin beer—an even rarer distinction. With all that attention, and the prospect of a substantial raise over the reported $1.5 million-plus that he is earning this year, it's a good bet that the Gaijin Who Mastered Japanese Baseball will be around next spring for at least one more season.