Baseball is a game of statistics. But among the statistics, there are numbers that have greater meaning among both players and fans alike.
One of those is the record for home runs in a single season. In Japan, that record was set by Sadaharu Oh, who hit 55 homers in 1964. In the years since, two other foreign players had equalled Oh’s mark.
But recently, former U.S. major league player Wladimir Balentien finally broke through, hitting home runs number 56 and 57 in just his 113th game of the season. I’m not great at math, but one homer every two games is a fantastic accomplishment.
Oh, but I have forgotten to mention the other issue that always seems to accompany home run records in baseball. Controversy.
Balentien has set his record in a season where a new, bouncier ball was introduced to help produce more homers and liven up the game.
The Nippon Professional Baseball organization finally admitted to the new ball in June, after months of denials.
So does this taint Balentien’s record?
Well, consider this. At the time he hit his 57th home run, no other player in the league had more than 37 homers and only two had hit at least 30.
So not everyone was taking advantage of the livelier ball it seems.
Balentien is a native of the Caribbean island of Curacao and played for the Netherlands at the World Baseball Classic earlier this year.
He made the move to Japan in 2011. He had played three seasons of Major League Baseball (MLB) from 2007 to 2009, hitting only 15 home runs in total. So clearly, Japanese baseball is not on a par with the brand played in the USA.
But the two leagues do share a penchant for controversy when it comes to home run records.
The MLB record was set by the legendary Babe Ruth, who hit 60 in 1927. 34 years later, Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961.
But many at the time wanted an asterisk next to Maris’ achievement, because by then the season had been lengthened from 154 to 162 games.
Then came the famous (infamous?) 1998 season, when both Mark McGwire (70) and Sammy Sosa (66) broke Maris’ record. Three years later, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs to break the record again.
McGwire eventually admitted using performance enhancing drugs, Bonds was convicted of obstruction-of-justice by a federal court for the "evasive" testimony he gave in the 2003 grand jury investigation into the use of doping and Sosa was accused of testing positive by the New York Times in 2009.
MLB has left all the records set during the so-called Steroid Era on the books. But the baseball writers eligible to vote on which players get into the sport’s Hall of Fame have so far shown little interest in letting anyone even remotely linked with doping into the Hall.
But attitudes could change with the passage of time. Take for instance Balentein’s chase of the home run title this season.
Some would argue that the biggest surprise was not that he set the record but the way the Japanese players and fans accepted the possibility that one of Japanese baseball’s most high-profile marks could be broken by a foreigner.
Why the change of heart? It could be that the success of many Japanese players, led by Ichiro Suzuki, in the U.S. major leagues has helped Japanese fans change their view of foreign players plying their trade in Japan.
It could be that in this time of ever-increasing globalization, barriers that once existed just no longer apply.
Could a return to MLB be in the cards for Balentien? He is completing his third season in Japan and has clearly demonstrated his abilities at this level.
At age 29, he is in the middle of what most believe are the prime years of a player’s career. Maybe it’s time to give it another shot.