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Wladimier Balentien and Breaking Records

September 18, 2013

On September 15, 2013, Wladimier Balentien of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows hit his 56th and 57th home runs of the 2013 Nippon Professional Baseball season.  This blasts allowed him to break the NPB record for most home runs in a season, first set by the legendary Sadaharu Oh for the Yomiuri Giants in 1964.

Now, I had heard of Oh some years ago–with 868 career home runs, he’s arguably the greatest home run hitter in world history.  But I don’t follow the NPB in the slightest, so until recently I had no idea who Balentien was or that he was challenging Oh’s single season record.  Yet for the past week two weeks, Balentien’s quest for HR #56 was caught the attention of mainstream American media outlets.

The coverage, however, framed the story in a perhaps unexpected way.  It wasn’t, “Will Balentien break Oh’s record?”  It was, “Will Japanese pitchers let him break it?”

Balentien’s record-breaking season first came to my attention through a story in the September 6 issue of The New York Times (“Deference to a Revered Record in Japan Is Going, Going…”).  The article notes that three times in the past, foreign players have threatened or tied Oh’s single season record, only to face intentional walks that prevented them from hitting HR #56.  The reluctance to let someone break Oh’s record also came up on the September 11 episode of ESPN’s Olbermann and the September 16 episode of PRI’s The World.

Most of these stories framed Balentien’s challenge to the record, explicitly or not, in terms of Japan’s culture.  That is, there has been an attitudinal shift in Japan where its baseball fans are more comfortable with a foreign player surpassing a national hero’s accomplishments.  There’s probably a lot of truth in that, but the framing might suggest this is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon.

I mean, let’s go back to 1974.  How many racist death threats did Hank Aaron receive as he was approaching Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs?  The notion that a black man of all people would dare pass the most sacred record in Major League Baseball touched a nerve with a sizable (or at least loud) portion of the American public.

And over what?  Which person can hit the most cowhide balls over an arbitrarily placed wall between two bright yellow poles?  Why do sports records, whether they be Oh’s or Ruth’s, draw such defensive reactions from us?

My guess is that sports are part of culture’s myth-making process.  Figures like Oh and Ruth are towering figures in their country’s landscapes.  Even people who know nothing about baseball learn about Babe Ruth in history class.  And records are like shorthand versions of stories.  They represent quests; they are new lands to be conquered, dragons to be slain, grails to be recovered.  Only here, the adventure happens to take place on a baseball diamond.

But while myths may psychologically apply to present, they don’t take place in it.  They are historical, constant, static.  So when someone from our time challenges our past heroes, it’s like they’re tearing the fabric of our culture.  Deep down we may know it’s silly, hand-wringing over home run records.  But we’re not guided by reason here.

So, to conclude: congratulations to Wladimier Balentien, the new home run king of Japan.  And good luck to future players who may challenge his reign.  You’re gonna need it.

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