CIRCLE Memorial Day on your 1996 calendar. Sometime around that
date, pending release of next year's Oriole schedule, Cal Ripken
Jr. more than likely will eclipse the next--and
last--consecutive-game milestone: Sachio Kinugasa's world record
Just as Hank Aaron's 755 career home runs make him the alltime
major league leader but second to Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh's
868, so too does Ripken have the record of a Far East legend
hovering over him.
After passing Lou Gehrig to become the major league record
holder on Sept. 6, Ripken was still 84 games short of the mark
set by Kinugasa (right) between Oct. 19, 1970, and Oct. 22,
1987, as a third baseman for the Hiroshima Carp. When asked if
he would make Kinugasa's record his next objective, Ripken said,
"I didn't look at Lou Gehrig's record that way, so I won't look
at his that way."
Ripken and Kinugasa played against each other after the 1984
season, when the Orioles toured Japan in a series of exhibitions
against Japanese teams. Kinugasa was 37 at the time, and his
streak had reached 1,825 games. Ripken was 24 and had played in
442 straight games.
Now 48 and a baseball announcer for the Japanese TV network TBS,
the swarthy Kinugasa is balding on top but still has the
powerful physique of his playing days. Over beer and sukiyaki
with reporter Kazuo Sayama recently, the jolly Kinugasa chuckled
and said that Ripken hadn't looked to him like a man who would
one day break Gehrig's mark.
"Ripken was tall!" Kinugasa said. At 5'9" and 165 pounds in his
playing days, Kinugasa was a full seven inches shorter and 45
pounds lighter than the Baltimore shortstop. Now he's happy that
Ripken broke Gehrig's record, because the attention paid to
Kinugasa's record will bring him some fame in Beikoku (the
United States), the land of his father. Kinugasa is an ainoko,
or GI baby, the son of a Japanese mother and African-American
father, whom he never knew.
Just as Gehrig played in the shadow of Babe Ruth, Kinugasa
played in the shade of Hiroshima star Koji Yamamoto, a slugging
outfielder. And even this year, with Ripken's run reminding
Japanese baseball fans of his iron man feat, Kinugasa has been
lost in the clamor over Hideo Nomo, the former Kintetsu Buffalo
turned Los Angeles Dodger sensation. "Everyone talks about
Nomo," Kinugasa said, with a smile. "Nobody talks about me."
At one time Japanese players held four baseball world records:
1) most home runs; 2) most consecutive games played; 3) most
strikeouts: Masaichi Kaneda, 4,490; and 4) most stolen bases:
Yutaka Fukumoto, 1,065. Nolan Ryan (5,714 strikeouts) and Ricky
Henderson (1,146 steals through Sept. 6, 1995) broke the latter
two marks. And with Ripken taking aim at Kinugasa's standard,
only the home run record appears out of the reach of U.S. players.
Because the Japanese season is just 130 games long, compared to
154 in Gehrig's day and 162 in Ripken's, Kinugasa's seasons were
not as grueling as the Americans', but he had to play more years
to extend his playing streak to its record length. Gehrig was 35
when his streak ended, and Ripken was 35 when he broke it.
Kinugasa was 40 when he passed Gehrig.
In never missing a game over 17 years, Kinugasa played with
broken bones five times, including once in 1979 when he was
struck in the back by a pitch and suffered a fractured shoulder
blade. The shoulder was taped, and he played the next day. "It
would have been more painful for me to stay home," Kinugasa said
at the time. "If I played and swung the bat, the pain in my
shoulder would last only an instant. If I had to stay home and
watch the game on TV, I'd hurt all over for three hours."
Kinugasa reached two other milestones that Gehrig never reached
and that Ripken will probably not equal either: 500 home runs
and 1,500 strikeouts. Kinugasa finished his career with 504
homers and a Japanese-record 1,587 whiffs. He also was hit by
pitches 161 times, ranking second on the Japanese alltime list.
Kinugasa broke Gehrig's consecutive-game record on June 13,
1987, when he stepped on the field at Hiroshima Stadium and fans
holding sheets of red paper formed the numbers 2,131 in the
stands. "I thank God," Kinugasa told the crowd, "for making it
possible for me to play baseball."
COLOR PHOTO: ASAHI SHIMBUN [SACHIO KINUGASA]