Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ichiro and Hideki Matsui are well known to baseball fans throughout the world as a result of their exploits in the major leagues.
However, prior to 1995, when Hideo Nomo made his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the only ballplayer from Japan that most fans outside these shores could name was Sadaharu Oh.
The 67-year-old Softbank Hawks skipper, the all-time world record holder for career home runs with 868 long balls during 22 years as a Yomiuri Giant, recently reflected on his playing career.
"When I broke Hank Aaron's home-run record of 755, at first it seemed to me that it was just No. 756, but people around me got very excited," Oh told reporters Monday in Tokyo. "About 200-300 kids showed up at my house for autographs the next day and TV cameras followed me everywhere, all the way to the ballpark."
When asked if he thought that his 868 home runs would ever be surpassed, Oh said eventually a new mark would be set, but not in Japan.
"In the U.S., Barry Bonds (762) maybe has a chance to pass me, and also Alex Rodriguez (518)--he's technically very good, he's fit and healthy and maybe one day he can reach 1,000 homers," Oh said.
After retiring as a player in 1980 at age 40, the Hall of Famer has gone on to have a successful career as a manager, leading the Giants to the Central League title in 1987 and piloting the Hawks to Japan Series crowns in 1999 and 2003.
In 2006, Oh managed Japan's national team to victory in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, further adding to his status as a baseball legend.
When asked the secret of his success in the batter's box, Oh--far from a hulking muscleman like many prolific home-run hitters--attributed it to a strong work ethic.
"When I was with the Giants, I had a coach named Hiroshi Arakawa who would make me swing the bat 500-1,000 times a day," recalled Oh, who was initially signed as a pitcher in 1959. "He said you had to control the bat like a pair of chopsticks or like a knife and fork. He'd make me swing before batting practice, after team meetings--basically until he was satisfied. I don't have a big body, but I did have the proper muscles to be a good hitter. Looking back, I can say that I really did train hard and work hard and maybe I was the one who practiced most."
While Oh's achievements are the stuff of legend, one of his records has been shrouded in controversy. In 1964, Oh whacked 55 home runs, a single-season record in Japan that has since been threatened by one foreign player (Hanshin's Randy Bass with 54 in 1985) and tied by two others (Kintetsu's Tuffy Rhodes in 2001 and Seibu's Alex Cabrera the following year). Particularly in Bass' case, and also to a lesser degree with Rhodes, when they neared the hallowed mark, they stopped seeing strikes.
"There are two ways to explain this," Oh said. "As a baseball fan, you always want to see the pitchers challenge the batters seriously. But at the same time, from a pitchers' perspective, you don't want to be the guy who gives up a record-breaking homer or a game-winning homer. It's true that many people in Japan have wanted to protect my record, but it was never done on my orders.
"It's like in boxing, you should always try to win convincingly by knockout, not leave it to a close referee's decision. It's the same thing when it comes to breaking records--don't try to beat it by one home run on the last few days of the season but rather smash it emphatically with several games left, like a KO."
Oh--who was born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and Chinese father and who still holds a Taiwanese passport--said he has no problems with the current trend of Japan's top players heading overseas to try their luck in MLB. He said he would have given it a shot if he had a chance when he was in his prime.
"The players see their teammates go to the U.S. and become successful, so naturally, they want to give it a try," he said
While it had been widely reported that Oh would retire from the game after next season, he revealed Monday that he only said it was a possibility. Oh went through a procedure last year where doctors removed his stomach after early forms of cancer were detected.
"But (the reports of retirement) are OK with me because it will motivate my players if they think it's my last season," said Oh, before adding: "I'll be 68 soon and I do feel weak and tired at times."
Oh is proud of the progress Japanese baseball has made and the part he has played in it. He said Japanese players are faster and getting bigger and stronger. But while he thinks the major leagues have had a largely positive impact on Japanese baseball, he has also seen players pick up some habits that he doesn't approve of.
"Nowadays, Japanese players like to wear their uniform pants too long like American players where you can't even see their shoes. I don't like that. Also, the salaries are getting so high now in Japan. Some top players may deserve a lot of money, but not everyone."
One can only imagine the contract Oh-san might have commanded if he were suiting up these days.
(IHT/Asahi: December 5,2007)