The great and mighty Ba-su steps into a hotel elevator in Kobe, Japan, wearing jeans and cowboy boots. An elderly Japanese woman in the elevator is struck dumb. "Ba...Ba..." She can't get the rest of the word out. Her knees start to buckle, but she clings to the arm of her companion, who is gazing up at the 6'1", 210-pound American towering before him. "Ba-su!" he cries.
Randy Bass says nothing. Until recently he had lived an anonymous, itinerant baseball life: nine years in the minors, winter ball in Mexico, a total of 130 big league games over six seasons with Minnesota, Kansas City, Montreal, San Diego and Texas. His lifetime major league average was .212. He had nine career home runs. He was a Triple A superstar who never got much of a chance.
Now Bass is suddenly, at age 33, a two-time Triple Crown winner and hero in a land whose complexities he neither understands nor enjoys. He is stared at constantly. There was a papier-mâché statue of him set up for good luck outside a Buddhist temple in Kobe. Even his beard is famous.
"Randy has succeeded in Japan to an extent no foreign player ever has," says Marty Kuehnert, an American-born broadcaster of Japanese baseball who calls games in both English and Japanese. "They don't want Americans to be their stars over here, but Randy has become one. He may be the only foreign player who has ever really been loved."
But love is never easy, and in this case it is full of storminess and bewilderment. Bass is a purebred Oklahoman, direct and proud and practical; to him fish belongs on a grill and chopped sticks go in the fireplace. So he is frustrated by a culture in which yes can mean no, and no can mean maybe and Western logic can mean nothing. Every few months Bass accidentally stomps through the delicate Japanese baseball code with his clumsy American feet, and the game's loyalists storm at him like angry gardeners whose flowers have been trampled. "Don't try to figure them out," Bass says of the Japanese. "You just get more confused."
The Hanshin Tigers pay Bass more than a million dollars a year to step up to the left side of the plate in his stiff-legged amble and pop home runs into the stands of tiny ballparks throughout Japan's Central League. He has become the most devastating American hitter in Japanese baseball history. Yet Bass confounds his hosts as thoroughly as they confound him. He refuses to learn their language. He shows little emotion. He is stubborn. His life, he insists, is his wife, Linda, and his two children and the Lawton, Okla., farm on which he grows wheat and raises horses and cattle. He says quietly that he hates Japanese ball.
But everywhere he goes in Japan, people gasp his name: Ba-su! It became a national mantra in 1985, when Bass, a first baseman, led the Tigers to their first league title in 21 years. He hit .350 with 54 homers and 134 runs batted in over only 126 games to win his first Triple Crown, then cracked three more homers as Hanshin defeated the Seibu Lions four games to two in the Japan Series. For his achievements Bass was awarded everything from a new car to a year's supply of rice. On baseball fields throughout the Kansai region in central Japan, little boys argued over who would be No. 44, the bearded slugger from America.
Last season Bass won the Triple Crown again, this time with 47 home runs, 109 RBIs and a .389 average, the highest in Japanese history. The Tigers fell to .500, however, and finished third in the Central League standings. It was rumored that the team's owner, the Hanshin Railway, didn't really mind the low finish because it did not want to reward the Tigers with raises two years in a row.
Now a new season is at hand, and Bass has flown off to Aki, Japan, for spring training. If he is to win an unprecedented third consecutive Triple Crown, Bass will have to outhit a cocky third baseman from the Chunichi Dragons named Hiromitsu Ochiai. Ochiai, 33, won the Triple Crown each of the last two years in Japan's less prestigious Pacific League, but he demanded so much money this winter that he was traded into the Central League. To the delight of his countrymen, Ochiai has declared that he cannot be stopped by any American, including Bass.
Only in Japan could this undercurrent of antiforeign sentiment blend so naturally with a flood of Ba-su mania. Sportswriters often use the phrase "Kami-sama, Hotoke-sama, Basu-sama" (God, Buddha, Bass). There are Randy Bass T-shirts, No. 44 flags, even 45-rpm records with the Tiger fight song on both sides and Bass's picture pressed in the yellow vinyl. Like Reggie Jackson, Bass had his name on a candy bar.