Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Sultan of Zen

Should Sadaharu Oh be in baseball’s Hall of Fame?

Any baseball player who hit 868 home runs during his career then went on to manage two teams to league championships, who had a lifetime batting average of .300 and played in 20 all-star games would be a shoo-in for the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., a sure first-vote nominee.

But of course Sadaharu Oh compiled his batting record during two decades as a player for the Yomiuri Giants, spending his entire career in the Japanese professional baseball league. He never had a chance to display his power in the American Major Leagues like so many of his countrymen do today.

Oh announced that he was hanging up his uniform after an astonishing 50 years in the game, both as a player and as a manager. He cited both poor health - he had been operated on for cancer two years previously - and the current poor showing of the Softbank Hawks, who are fighting for last place in Japan’s Pacific League.

(Japanese baseball teams are named after their owners. Hence the Yomiuri Giants are named after their owner, the Yomiuri news group. Its base is Tokyo, and that location in Japan’s capital and largest city and long record of winning championships make the Giants the New York Yankees of Japan)

One of the great “what if’s” of baseball is how Oh might have fared if he had played in the American Major Leagues, as so many great Japanese players do today now almost as a matter of course. But Oh’s playing days were in the 1960s and 1970s when no Japanese appeared in American ballparks.

The first Japanese player to make his mark in the U.S. was Hideo Nomo, who joined the Los Angeles Dodgers as a pitcher in 1995. But the really big break came in 2001, when Ichiro Suzuki (who is known to everyone on both sides of the Pacific by his given name) joined the Seattle Mariners.

Debate rages among baseball aficionados as to whether Oh could have hit 868 home runs as a Major League player and whether his record really does stand in comparison with Bond’s, Henry Aaron’s or even Babe Ruth’s lifetime 714. Did he make his record against inferior pitching or shorter ball parks?

One can never know, but there is no question he could hit Major League pitching. He hit 25 home runs off of American pitchers in various exhibition games played in Japan while he was a Giant. Among his peers in the Major League, there is a general agreement that he would have been a great player possibly hitting 500 lifetime homers but not the equal of Babe Ruth.

“There’s no question that he would not have hit 800 home runs if he had played here,” Pete Rose once wrote. But he added that Oh would have probably averaged about 35 homers a year and ended with the .300 batting average he had in Japan.

If that is the case, why shouldn’t Oh be inducted into America’s Hall of Fame (naturally he’ll find a prime place in the Japanese version)? At the moment no Japanese has ever found his name on a Cooperstown plaque, but it seems only a matter of time before Ichiro becomes the first.

Although a few dissenters carp that Ichiro is not a power hitter, it might be hard to deny a player who made 200 hits in eight consecutive seasons, including a record 262 in 2006. Considering that the previous record-holder, Wee Willie (“I hit ‘em where they ain’t”) Keeler, is a Hall of Famer, it might be hard to deny the honor to Ichiro.

Baseball fans who favor the idea of Oh being admitted point to the induction of a dozen or so African-American baseball players who never had a chance to play in the Majors because they played before the color bar was broken by Jackie Robinson in 1949.

However, Oh would have to overcome one serious blot on his reputation likely to weigh heavily with the American sportswriters who vote. That is how he allegedly treated American players who threatened his Japanese record of 55 home runs in a single season set in 1964. Three Americans playing for Japanese teams neared or tied Oh’s record: Randy Bass hit 54, Karl Rhodes and Alex Cabrera each hit 55.

In the crucial end of season games, Japanese pitchers blatantly walked Rhodes and Cabrera, rather than throw anything that they could hit. It so happened that in both instances the opposing team was managed by Sadaharu Oh. Even the Japanese baseball commissioner complained of poor sportsmanship.

The distinction between American and Japanese leagues is declining as more Americans play for Japanese teams and more Japanese play for American teams. Americans cheer Ichiro, the Yankees’ Hideki Matsui and the latest Japanese phenom, Kosuke Fukudome (signed for $48 million over four years), who helped power the Chicago Cubs into contention this year.

Last year’s World Series was played simultaneously with the Japanese championships, the Nippon Series. Anyone in Japan tuning in on television might find Daisuke Matsuzaka on the mound for the Boston Red Sox. Turn the channel and Brian Sweeney is pitching for the Nippon Ham Fighters. Pretty soon you begin to wonder which series you are watching.

Recognizing Oh’s greatness with a plaque at Cooperstown would simply underscore just how much baseball has become a truly global spectator sport and would turn the National Hall of Fame into an International Hall of Fame.


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