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Home run king and gentleman

Japan's Sadaharu Oh reflects on his career, Barry Bonds and cancer. `I feel lucky,' he says.

July 04, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

Fukuoka, Japan — IT is four hours before the night's first pitch will be thrown and Sadaharu Oh is already in his temple, standing behind the batting cage simulating a hitter's swing, talking religion. Oh's house of worship is a ballpark -- any ballpark will do, but in this case it's the Fukuoka Dome in southern Japan where he is manager of the Softbank Hawks -- and his temporal faith follows the scripture on hitting a baseball.

"It's all about bat speed and how sharply you swing," he says, explaining why batters don't need Popeye arms, a Schwarzenegger chest or a vial of pharmaceuticals to hit home runs. "Bigger players tend to put more emphasis on power instead of technique. But for smaller players, the ball flies as long as you hit the sweet spot."

Oh knows the feeling. In his days as a player with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants from 1959 to 1980, he hit more home runs than any professional player who has ever stepped into a batter's box: 868. More than Babe Ruth (714), more than Hank Aaron (755), and probably more than whatever number San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds -- who at 751 is closing in on Aaron's Major League Baseball record -- finishes with.

And though there are Japanese fans who say Oh's 868 should be recognized as the true home run record, Oh is having none of it.

"I am the man who hit the most home runs -- in Japan," he says diplomatically. "The Japanese media want to describe me as the true record holder. But I never considered myself that way."

The answer is characteristically humble from a man whose public persona could be described as the anti-Bonds. Oh is revered by fans and is unfailingly polite, even with a media he thinks often oversteps its bounds. He is an ambassador for his sport who, along with Aaron, founded the World Children's Baseball Fair, which for 17 years has brought kids from five continents together for a week of baseball clinics and a cross-cultural exchange.

Even in the age of Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka -- the current generation of Japanese stars who have made the Pacific crossing for stardom and riches in America's major leagues -- the 67-year-old Oh continues to be a public face of Japanese baseball.

After laying down his bat at home plate and walking off the field in a dramatic farewell in 1980, Oh became a successful manager with the Giants -- Japan's New York Yankees -- then the Hawks, a second career that reached another peak in the spring of 2006 when he managed Japan's national team to victory in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Shortly after the tournament ended, Oh was diagnosed with cancer, and his entire stomach was removed. He vowed to those who sent get-well cards that he would soon be back on the diamond. Within months he was managing again, sometimes requiring an intravenous tube for sustenance in the dugout.

"I know I'll never fully recover," he says now, noticeably thinner than a year ago but still vigorous. "My brain remembers what it's like to have an appetite. But I can only eat little by little."

His extraordinary life story makes Oh a national treasure in a country where, also remarkably, he has never been a citizen and which is notoriously lukewarm -- or worse -- toward its minorities. He was born in wartime Japan to a Chinese immigrant father and a Japanese mother. His father was imprisoned by Japanese authorities for part of the war. And as a teenager, Oh's mixed heritage barred him from a national youth tournament for not being "pure Japanese." Because of nationality laws at the time of his birth, he carries a Taiwanese passport. Yet he expresses no resentment over the discrimination he and his family faced.

"I don't have bitter memories," he says. "I heard my father was put in a prison camp, but I don't remember it at all. I actually have good memories of the postwar period because the Japanese people were a defeated nation and my father was from a country that was on the winning side. So we were provided with plenty of food and candies."

He says he never felt the need to change nationalities.

"Everybody knows I am not Japanese, so I didn't find it necessary," he says. "It was my choice, my will.

"I feel lucky," he says.

IN a sport obsessed with statistics, Oh's 868 does not resonate with American baseball fans, is never mentioned alongside magic numbers such as the 56 of Joe DiMaggio's consecutive game hitting streak, or Ruth's 714 that was the gold standard for home run hitters until Aaron smashed it on his way to 755.

But Oh argues that the true measure of greatness is how a player performs in his era.

"You can't compare unless you are playing in the same conditions," he says. "The best measure is how much of a gap you can create between people playing in the same period," and by that standard he calls Ruth baseball's true home run king.

"What was great about Babe Ruth is that he hit so many home runs at a time when other players hit so few," Oh says.

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