Former Major League Baseball player Wladamir Balentien did not have an exciting career in the United States. But in Japan, as a member of the Yakult Swallows, he has become a star. On September 15, Baletien hit his 56th home run, breaking legendary Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh’s 49-year-old, single-season record. For good measure, Balentien added another homer in his next at-bat.
Balentien is originally from Curacao, and historically, Japanese fans have not been enthusiastic about a foreigner besting Oh’s record. But according to Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times, things are different today, “I think it’s changed quite a bit. If you saw with Balentien there is an enthusiasm, at least in the stadium, there is an enthusiasm from both Swallows fans and from the fans of the opposing team,” Coskrey told Only A Game.The record had some close calls before Balentien topped it. Randy Bass tied it in 1985. Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera also matched the mark in 2001 and 2002, respectively. Some opposing teams, including squads managed by Oh, chose to pitch around those sluggers with intentional walks, but Balentien is still seeing real pitches.
“Balentien was so far ahead of the pace that Randy Bass or Tuffy or Alex set that [pitchers] would have literally had to walk him about a 100 or so times,” Coskrey explained. “Even if they wanted to keep it away from him, there was no way they could do that.”
This season the Japanese began using a new baseball. League officials made the switch without telling the teams. In the past, teams got to cho0se the kind of ball they wanted to use. Coskrey does not believe that the ball played a significant role in Balentien’s achievement.
“I don’t think you can put too much of an asterisk there because the ball isn’t as lively as it was just two years ago. I’m sure the balls Tuffy and Cabrara were hitting were probably livelier than the ball Balentien is hitting right now.”
With time still left in the season, the only question is how many more home runs will Balentien hit.