After 49 years, Japanese baseball is now prepared to accept the inevitable — that its most sacrosanct record will not last forever.
On Wednesday night in Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, Curacao-born Wladimir Balentien hit his 55th home run of the year for the Yakult Swallows, tying the single-season record set by Japanese baseball icon Sadaharu Oh.
“It’s an honor to be tied with such great players,” Balentien told AP on Wednesday night. “I’m relieved and happy I was able to do it here in front of our home fans.”
(More: For Baseball’s Most Infamous Umpire, Instant Replay Is Too Late)
Other athletes have been close to breaking the record in the past — American Tuffy Rhodes in 2001 and Venezuelan Alex Cabrera in 2002 all put 55 balls out of the park. But efforts to get the additional home run that would have changed the record books would be thwarted by pitchers instructed to intentionally throw out of the strike zone, or walk those who were within striking distance, out of respect to Oh’s benchmark.
“The feeling in Japan at the time was that no one wanted to see Oh’s record broken. They wanted to see that record held by a Japanese-born player,” said ESPN magazine’s baseball analyst Buster Onley.
But times are changing and fans appear eager to see someone set the new benchmark, even if the person is a foreign national. According to a poll conducted in late August by Nikkel, 69% of Japanese fans reported that they were eager to see Balentien smash his 56th ball outside of the park.
With 21 games left in the season, the former major leaguer is likely to not just shatter the record, but also usher Japanese baseball into a new era.