Baseball is all about records. Sacred records. That is why so many hardcore American fans are angry that steroid users have shattered milestones held by baseball’s icons.
Our baseball records aren’t the only statistics that are tumbling. It has occurred in Japan, too. Performance enhancing drugs, though, are not involved, and some fans there just don’t mind that a sacred record or two is broken.
For decades, the Japanese have called Sadaharu Oh the world’s home run king. With 868 of them and many other records, he is worshiped in Japan as much as Babe Ruth is revered in America. Over the years, a few foreign players in Japan’s elite league threatened Oh’s hallowed single season home run mark of 55. Each time, opposing pitchers deliberately refused to throw balls near the strike zone, allowing Japan to protect Oh’s milestone.
But the culture of deference to Oh has ended. As this past season progressed, many Japanese fans rooted for the single season record to fall as its latest challenger, Wladimir Balentien, continued to hit balls out of the park. Balentien is not Japanese, but from Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles, and he once played for the Seattle Mariners and the Cincinnati Reds.
During Balentien’s chase, Japan experienced a gradual change in its version of the game of baseball. Commentary about Oh’s record included discussion about the realization that the country cannot continue to remain isolated, in its baseball and other ways of life, from the rest of the world. Japan needed to embrace outsiders.
In one survey, 69 percent of 1,300 respondents said they were enthusiastic about Balentien’s bid to pass Oh. Many fans showered boos on pitchers who did not throw strikes to him during the record chase. Eventually, on September 15, Balentien shattered the record.
The times, even for Japanese baseball, sure are changing, as they do every day in our personal lives and in the business world. The successful person, and possibly even the happier one, is the individual who learns to adapt to these changes.
Postscript: The tumbling of the single season home run record created additional buzz as other components of the overall story were publically acknowledged.
While born in Japan, Oh is a Taiwanese national. Even though he is a foreigner, Oh’s career was protected for years by Japanese players and fans. Maybe today’s fan, who has cheered the success of Japanese players in American baseball, has accepted the possibility that anyone, even a player from Curaçao, can hold a baseball record in the Japanese elite league.
More important is the scandal revealed earlier this season that involved the ball used in Japan’s games. The Nippon Professional Baseball league admitted that it had quietly juiced the ball to create a greater bounce off the bat, and players used that ball for about 60 games. Home runs increased by more than 40 percent from the previous year. While the players weren’t juiced, the balls certainly were marked with performance enhancement issues. Is Balentien’s new record tainted? The debate will continue.
I guess nothing comes easy, nor is anything really what it seems. That goes for life, business and the great game of baseball.