TOKYO (AP) — Another foreign player is challenging Sadaharu Oh’s single-season home run record in Japan and may get a fair chance to break it this time.
With 30 games left in the season, Wladimir Balentien of the Yakult Swallows has 52 homers, just three shy of the record set by Oh in 1964.
Former major leaguers Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera matched the record in 2001 and 2002, respectively, but saw an increase in walks as they attempted to break it.
Randy Bass hit 54 homers in 1985, but fell short when the pitcher from the Yomiuri Giants, then managed by Oh, threw nothing but balls in the last game of the season, preventing Bass from tying the record.
Knowing the problems faced by other foreign players in the past, Balentien — who is from the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao — said he expects a different approach from pitchers as he nears the record.
“As the record nears, I know pitchers may be reluctant to throw strikes,” Balentien said on Yakult’s website. “But I’m concentrating on hitting as best as I can. I can feel the expectations of the team.”
Unlike Rhodes and Cabrera, Balentien has time on his side.
Rhodes had several games left to break Oh’s record in the 2001 season, but was walked in each at-bat in a late season series against the Hawks, then managed by Oh.
Oh denied any involvement and the Hawks pitching coach said the pitchers acted on his orders.
The situation resurfaced again the next season when Cabrera reached 55 with five games left. Once again, Cabrera faced the Hawks and got nothing to hit. Oh claimed he told his pitchers to throw strikes, but added that anyone attempting to break his record should do it by a lot.
Oh is a legend in Japan. His 868 home runs, which surpassed Hank Aaron’s 755, made him a national hero. The single-season home run record is also highly regarded. Former New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui wore No. 55 in recognition of it. The closest Matsui got to breaking Oh’s record was 50 homers in 2002, when he played for the Yomiuri Giants.
Balentien played for the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds before signing with the Swallows in 2011. He hit a Central League-leading 31 homers in each of his first two seasons in Japan.
The 29-year-old Balentien missed the first 12 games of this season because of a leg injury he picked up while playing for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic.
The 73-year-old Oh is still involved in baseball as an honorary chairman for the Hawks, which play in the Pacific League. Interleague games are over so the Hawks won’t be able to directly influence the outcome, but Oh’s name still carries a lot of weight in Japan.
Certain to complicate matters is the fact that Balentien’s challenge of Oh’s record comes in a season where there is controversy over a new, livelier baseball.
In June, Japanese baseball officials admitted they introduced the new official ball this season without notifying players. The new ball has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of home runs.
Some will argue Balentien benefits from playing in one of the smallest stadiums in Japan. Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium is just 101 meters (331 feet) down both lines. Osaka Dome, where Rhodes played, is 116 meters (380 feet) down the lines.