Ask Maris. Ask McGwire. Ask Bonds. As captivating as home run chases are for the rest of us, the intense pressure and klieg-light-like media glare often make them about as much fun for the participants as oral surgery. Add to those factors the worry that an entire country might conspire to keep a player from the record, and it's understandable why 33-year-old Karl (Tuffy) Rhodes was so happy with his hitless performance last Saturday. Rhodes, a Cincinnati native and a journeyman major leaguer (.224 average, 13 homers and 44 RBIs) for three clubs from 1990 to '95, has played outfield for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes of Japan's Pacific League for the past six seasons. He entered the weekend with 55 home runs, equaling the Japanese single-season record set 37 years ago by the country's iconic answer to Babe Ruth, Sadaharu Oh. As Rhodes's homer total climbed over the summer, the question wasn't whether he could hit 56 but whether opposing pitchers would give a gaijin (foreigner) a chance to break such a hallowed mark.
Rhodes went 0 for 2 with a sacrifice fly against the Chiba Lotte Marines last Saturday. He didn't break the record, but at least he saw some strikes. "I got great pitches to hit, but I made a few mistakes," he said after the game. Speaking of a long fly ball he hit to center in the seventh inning, he said, "[The pitch] was right down the middle. I've hit that ball out of the ballpark plenty of times."
Rhodes saw fewer hittable pitches on Sunday against the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks—who are managed by Oh—and went 0 for 2 with two walks in Kintetsu's 12-4 loss, leaving him tied with the legend with two games to play in the 140-game season and disappointing the crowd at the Fukuoka Dome, which booed when he was pitched around. Nearly as remarkable as Rhodes's slugging is the favorable reception it has received. The Japanese have a long history of protecting their records from foreign players. In 1971, when former Chicago Cubs outfielder George Altman was locked in a tight race for the Pacific League batting title with Lotte Orions teammate Shinichi Eto, opponents blatantly pitched around Altman while throwing strikes to Eto. (In one game the Nankai Hawks even overshifted their defense to allow Eto to go 4 for 4.) When former San Diego Padres first baseman Randy Bass came within one homer of Oh's record in 1985, he was walked six times in nine at bats over the season's final two games against the Yomiuri Giants, then managed by Oh. Bass was so sure that he wouldn't see any strikes that at one point he stood at the plate holding his bat upside down in protest.
Rhodes, who's been in Japan as long as any other current American player, has seen many of the anti-gaijin barriers fall. I le has helped topple them by playing hard, making an effort to learn Japanese and hanging out with his teammates. A fan favorite, he led the Pacific League in dingers in 1999 with 40 and even has his own line of clothing in Japanese stores.
His homer assault has been a saving grace in an otherwise down year for Japanese baseball. With home-bred stars like the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki succeeding in the U.S., many fans in Japan have abandoned their leagues to watch the broadcasts of Mariners games, which are beamed around the country. Attendance and television audiences for Japanese games have plummeted—TV ratings for the Giants, the most popular team, are the lowest in 36 years—and there's a growing worry that the Japanese leagues will be drained of talent as top players flock to the States.
Rhodes, who says he wants to finish his career in Japan, has given Japanese fans reason to watch and, in the process, has heralded a new era of openness and globalization in the game. "Although Oh has done much to promote baseball, it has been 37 years since he set his single-season home run record," the national daily Asahi Shimbun wrote last month. "It may be time for the sport to embrace a new hero, no matter if he is Japanese or a foreigner."
"Maybe 10 or 20 years ago Japanese fans had a fear of American players," says Minora Ichihara, the Buffaloes' international scouting director, "but not anymore."