Ask Maris. Ask McGwire. Ask Bonds. As captivating as home run
chases are for the rest of us, the intense pressure and
klieglight-like media glare often make them about as much fun
for the participants as oral surgery. Add to those factors the
worry that an entire country might conspire to keep a player
from the record, and it's understandable why 33-year-old Karl
(Tuffy) Rhodes was so happy with his hitless performance last
Saturday. Rhodes, a Cincinnati native and a journeyman major
leaguer (.224 average, 13 homers and 44 RBIs) for three clubs
from 1990 to '95, has played outfield for the Osaka Kintetsu
Buffaloes of Japan's Pacific League for the past six seasons. He
entered the weekend with 55 home runs, equaling the Japanese
single-season record set 37 years ago by the country's iconic
answer to Babe Ruth, Sadaharu Oh. As Rhodes's homer total
climbed over the summer, the question wasn't whether he could
hit 56 but whether opposing pitchers would give a gaijin
(foreigner) a chance to break such a hallowed mark.
Rhodes went 0 for 2 with a sacrifice fly against the Chiba Lotte
Marines last Saturday. He didn't break the record, but at least
he saw some strikes. "I got great pitches to hit, but I made a
few mistakes," he said after the game. Speaking of a long fly
ball he hit to center in the seventh inning, he said, "[The
pitch] was right down the middle. I've hit that ball out of the
ballpark plenty of times."
Rhodes saw fewer hittable pitches on Sunday against the Fukuoka
Daiei Hawks--who are managed by Oh--and went 0 for 2 with two
walks in Kintetsu's 12-4 loss, leaving him tied with the legend
with two games to play in the 140-game season and disappointing
the crowd at the Fukuoka Dome, which booed when he was pitched
around. Nearly as remarkable as Rhodes's slugging is the
favorable reception it has received. The Japanese have a long
history of protecting their records from foreign players. In
1971, when former Chicago Cubs outfielder George Altman was
locked in a tight race for the Pacific League batting title with
Lotte Orions teammate Shinichi Eto, opponents blatantly pitched
around Altman while throwing strikes to Eto. (In one game the
Nankai Hawks even overshifted their defense to allow Eto to go 4
for 4.) When former San Diego Padres first baseman Randy Bass
came within one homer of Oh's record in 1985, he was walked six
times in nine at bats over the season's final two games against
the Yomiuri Giants, then managed by Oh. Bass was so sure that he
wouldn't see any strikes that at one point he stood at the plate
holding his bat upside down in protest.
Rhodes, who's been in Japan as long as any other current
American player, has seen many of the anti-gaijin barriers fall.
He has helped topple them by playing hard, making an effort to
learn Japanese and hanging out with his teammates. A fan
favorite, he led the Pacific League in dingers in 1999 with 40
and even has his own line of clothing in Japanese stores.
His homer assault has been a saving grace in an otherwise down
year for Japanese baseball. With home-bred stars like the
Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki succeeding
in the U.S., many fans in Japan have abandoned their leagues to
watch the broadcasts of Mariners games, which are beamed around
the country. Attendance and television audiences for Japanese
games have plummeted--TV ratings for the Giants, the most
popular team, are the lowest in 36 years--and there's a growing
worry that the Japanese leagues will be drained of talent as top
players flock to the States.
Rhodes, who says he wants to finish his career in Japan, has
given Japanese fans reason to watch and, in the process, has
heralded a new era of openness and globalization in the game.
"Although Oh has done much to promote baseball, it has been 37
years since he set his single-season home run record," the
national daily Asahi Shimbun wrote last month. "It may be time
for the sport to embrace a new hero, no matter if he is Japanese
or a foreigner."
"Maybe 10 or 20 years ago Japanese fans had a fear of American
players," says Minoru Ichihara, the Buffaloes' international
scouting director, "but not anymore."
COLOR PHOTO: AP/KYODO
The question was whether pitchers would give a gaijin (foreigner)
a chance to break Oh's mark.