Wladimir Balentien aiming to become Japan's home run king
Tokyo Reporter -- Aug 30
Succession to Japan's home run crown is just a few swings away. In the bottom of the ninth on Wednesday at Meiji Jingu Stadium, Wladimir Balentien, the right-handed slugger for the Central League's Yakult Swallows, uncoiled his burly frame to pound a hanging curve ball into the seats in left field.

The solo shot was his 51st round-tripper of the year, putting him within striking distance of 55, the single-season record first set by Sadaharu Oh five decades ago and later equaled by Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes and Alex Cabrera.

With 31 games left on the schedule, the native of Curaçao knows that getting to 55 could become challenging as Nippon Professional Baseball is not known for playing fair when foreigners approach the record considered to be unrivaled.

"As (the record) nears, pitchers will be reluctant to throw strikes," said Balentien in a statement issued on the Swallows' Web site after the game, an 11-7 loss to the Chunichi Dragons. "I sense that, but I'm concentrating on hitting strikes."

Oh, the former first baseman and manager who is one of the most highly regarded sports figures in Japan, set the record in 1964 when he was with the Yomiuri Giants. Since then there has been a blatant effort on a number of occasions - notably in games involving Oh himself - to ensure that it remains intact.

The Hanshin Tigers' Randy Bass entered the last game of the 1985 season with 54 home runs. He was walked four times by the Yomiuri Giants, who were managed by Oh.

In 2001, Tuffy Rhodes, while playing for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, came into the final five games of the year with 55 home runs. The outfielder faced challenges similar to Bass in games against the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, a team also skippered by Oh.

"They didn't throw me any strikes," said Rhodes by email, referring to the games against Fukuoka. "I had to swing at two pitches (out of the strike zone) if I wanted to hit."

The following year, Alex Cabrera, then of the Seibu Lions, as well complained about a lack of pitches over the plate after his pursuit of the record also stalled at 55.

Speculation has started in Japan's tabloid media about whether Balentien will suffer a similar fate. The online Business Journal went as far as to suggest that the negative publicity from a repeat of unsportsmanlike behavior would endanger Tokyo's bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games. (The International Olympic Committee is scheduled to announce the winning city on September 7.)

Source: Tokyo Reporter
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