SORRY, Barry Bonds. You're still 112 home runs away from the home run record, the real record, that is. Hitting 756 dingers is certainly quite an achievement, more than anyone else has hit in Major League Baseball history. But it is far behind the world record, the 868 homers slugged by Sadaharu Oh when he played for the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants from 1959 to 1980.
Many naysayers in America play down this achievement. They argue that it doesn't really count because Oh played in Japan, where the players are smaller and the fences are closer than they are in North America. But that view is narrow-minded and misinformed.
There are 127 million people in Japan, where, in contrast to the United States, baseball is still the national pastime. Most of them, it is safe to say, care more about Sadaharu Oh than they do about Barry Bonds or his home run record. Oh's home runs were usually wicked line drives, not high fly balls, and they sometimes put dents in the outfield seats. And he hit all of his circuit blasts in 127 fewer games and 524 fewer at-bats than Bonds needed just to pass Hank Aaron.
Oh batted against some of the toughest pitchers ever to play the game, wickedly effective breaking-ball artists. Like Oh, they were kept from playing in the United States by a restrictive reserve clause that bound players to their Japanese teams, even after their contracts expired, and by the quaint notion of loyalty. During Oh's era, Major League Baseball players who ended their careers in Japan reported that two or three pitchers on each Japanese team could have played, and in some cases even starred, in North America.
Playing for the dominant Giants, Oh always faced the absolute best pitching the opposition had to offer. Teams would abandon their normal pitching rotations. Their top hurlers were used as if it were the playoffs. In a three-game series with the Giants, it was not unusual for the opposing club's ace to start twice and also appear in relief.
The son of a Chinese immigrant father and a Japanese mother, Oh overcame discrimination as a child, and he led his team to victory in the hugely popular high school spring championship tournament. He pitched four complete games in four days with bleeding, infected blisters on his pitching hand.
After he joined the pros and was moved to first base, he overcame a hitch in his swing through special sessions with a martial arts sensei. Oh learned to hit while standing on one leg, giving birth to his famous flamingo swing. He strengthened his wrists by swinging a heavy samurai long sword each night, slicing in half sheets of paper suspended from the ceiling. Nearly everyone in Japan knows that Oh was so dedicated to his sport that when his father died, he did not miss a game. Invariably, he signs autographs using the Chinese character for the word "doryoku," which means effort.
When Oh passed Hank Aaron, on Sept. 3, 1977, with the 756th home run of his career, all of Japan celebrated. Even the American ambassador joined in the festivities. Yet Oh has refused to compare his record to Aaron's. "I'm just a man who happened to hit a lot of home runs in Japan," he has said.
Barry Bonds is not without a fan base in Japan. Millions followed his quest for the single-season home run record in 2001, when he hit 73, just as they had followed the daily telecasts of the home run battle between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa three years earlier. They cheered him when he visited Japan with Major League Baseball all-stars on postseason tours, and they smiled in appreciation when he made a commercial in Japan (for a daily newspaper), a rare sign of popularity for a foreign athlete.
But that was before the steroid scandal. Steroids have not been a problem in Japan, and most Japanese baseball fans are not as familiar with them as their North American counterparts are. But Japanese fans now have a little less interest in Bonds's exploits because they have been told by their news media that his home runs may be a product of cheating.
It is rare to see Bonds on Japanese television these days. You have to look hard in the popular sports dailies to find an article about him. When Bonds passed Aaron, he got the requisite headlines, but the only other time this year he drew such attention was when he criticized Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Japanese rookie pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, for intentionally walking him. After Bonds hit two home runs in one game the other week, Japan's biggest-selling sports daily, Nikkan Sports, ran only a cursory report with a small photograph, buried on Page 7.
Oh, now manager of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, has refused to criticize Bonds and has remarked that steroid use has not always been illegal. Perhaps he is remembering that he hit most of his home runs using rock-hard, custom-made compressed bats, which were illegal in the major leagues when he played and were outlawed in Japanese baseball after he retired. A batter using a compressed bat, it was said at the time, could propel a ball farther than he can with an ordinary bat.
But Oh's compressed bats are a subject no one discusses much in Japan. These days, when Japanese salarymen congregate in bars after work, if they talk about Major League Baseball, they discuss the exploits of Japanese stars, whose games are telecast daily in Japan. Perhaps if Bonds played alongside Ichiro Suzuki or Hideki Matsui or behind Daisuke Matsuzaka, it would be different. But probably not: if they talk about an American star, it is Alex Rodriguez and not Barry Bonds.
As a Tokyo sports reporter put it to me: "Japanese think A-Rod is better looking. He is handsome, sleek, chiseled - like Bonds used to be. When A-Rod passes Oh's record a decade from now you can bet that all of Japan will be paying attention. But I wonder how many people will remember Barry Bonds."