Now the Yakult
Swallows' sidearmer whips down. Almost precisely as the ball is released, Oh
raises his right foot, drawing it up like a flamingo. And the bat tenses in his
hands, shifting into gear. The pitch appears good, and at once the bat and the
leg thrust forward in tandem. Oh says he never purposely tries to hit a home
run, but he also says, "The moment I decide to swing I am determined to
crash that ball to pieces." And then in the next instant the ball is lifted
in a deceptively lazy parabola that carries it over the fence in right center,
where the overflow of the crowd of 50,000 is packed on a hillside.
This is Jinqu
Park, ancient home grounds of the Swallows, a place redolent of decades of the
concessionaire's fish, and now, for Mister Oh's home run, it explodes in a roar
that transcends team loyalties. Streamers pour onto the field. Banners are
waved. By the time Oh-san reaches home, all his teammates are lined up on the
field in front of the dugout, and he troops the line, slapping palms along the
way. Mister Oh permits himself a contented smile.
What does it feel
like to hit a home run? He nods with pleasure, delighted. He replies with
relish: "First of all, I feel that I have conquered the pitcher. Hey, I
feel great. I feel triumphant. Despite all that he has tried, I have done the
ultimate as a hitter. I have won unconditionally." As the interpreter
repeats these remarks in English, Mister Oh is nodding with satisfaction, and
when they are concluded he smiles in benediction. This time, for sure, nothing
has been lost in translation.
In jaunty sports
clothes, smoking and joking, Oh is obviously a man who can enjoy himself. His
is an open face, although he is not an especially handsome man, and he is, it
turns out, an exemplary human being. Two encomiums, from East and West, are
representative. First, from Oh's manager, Shigeo Nagashima, who was known as
the Brooks Robinson of Japan when he was the teammate of the Babe Ruth of
Japan: "In a word, Mister Oh's a good guy—a very kindly fellow, quite a
gentleman. He's considerate of others. Every member of the team feels proud of
him, because he is not only the No. 1 player but the No. 1 man."
And from Davey
Johnson of the Phillies, who played with Oh the past two seasons: "He's
just a super guy—dedicated, the hardest worker around, and he's fun to be with.
He's just a great guy."
And so on and so
forth. Scratch anybody who has ever been acquainted with Oh-san and a similar
testimonial bleeds, until tedium finally coagulates it. Given his
accomplishment and his personality, this great player's face would no doubt
have replaced the rising sun on the Japanese flag by now except for the nagging
little inconvenience that Mr. Oh is not Japanese.
Sadaharu Oh is
Chinese on his father's side. His father even used to run a Chinese restaurant,
and Oh still carries a Nationalist Chinese passport. His unusual foreign name
(which means king) is written like this in Japanese: [Japanese character]; it
stands out on the scoreboard as much as if it were written RUTH. All the
Japanese players' names are composed of two characters, and the American names
are phonetically converted into two characters. Then there is [Japanese
Oh's mother is
Japanese, and he was born in Tokyo on May 20, 1940, but what would be a saving
grace elsewhere does not work in Japan. Just as you cannot be a little bit
pregnant, neither can you be a little bit Japanese. The Chinese are viewed
ambivalently, inasmuch as a great deal of island culture came from the
mainland, but it is a distant, formal appreciation. While Oh says he has been
officially discriminated against only once—when he was forbidden to play in a
high school tournament that admitted only full bloods—his alienage is, uh,
It is the
astonishingly handsome Nagashima who is "Mister Giant." When at last it
was no longer possible for Oh to be dismissed as Nagashima's second banana,
they were linked as the Giants' O & N Gun. Now, the man who usually bats
third ahead of Oh is Isao Harimoto, who is the Ty Cobb of Japan or the Rogers
Hornsby or the Pete Rose or the somebody—everybody in Japanese baseball is the
Somebody-from-America of Japan. Playing for the Nippon Ham Fighters, Harimoto
hit a Japanese record .383 in 1970 and won six Pacific League batting titles.
Two years ago, in a blockbuster deal, he was traded to the Senior Circuit—the
Central League—to bat third for the Giants, to form the O&H Gun.
Like Oh, Harimoto
is not Japanese, though he was born in Hiroshima. Both his parents are Korean,
and the Koreans, the one significant immigrant body in Japan, are looked down
upon. Last year Harimoto lost another batting title on the last day of the
season by .00006 of a point to a full-blooded Japanese on the Chunichi Dragons.
The whispers are that the team playing the Dragons went into the tank in the
final game to help the Japanese beat the Korean.