July 4, 2007

HIGH PRIEST:

Home run king and gentleman (Bruce Wallace, July 4, 2007, Los Angeles Times)

IT is four hours before the night's first pitch will be thrown and Sadaharu Oh is already in his temple, standing behind the batting cage simulating a hitter's swing, talking religion. Oh's house of worship is a ballpark — any ballpark will do, but in this case it's the Fukuoka Dome in southern Japan where he is manager of the Softbank Hawks — and his temporal faith follows the scripture on hitting a baseball.

"It's all about bat speed and how sharply you swing," he says, explaining why batters don't need Popeye arms, a Schwarzenegger chest or a vial of pharmaceuticals to hit home runs. "Bigger players tend to put more emphasis on power instead of technique. But for smaller players, the ball flies as long as you hit the sweet spot."

Oh knows the feeling. In his days as a player with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants from 1959 to 1980, he hit more home runs than any professional player who has ever stepped into a batter's box: 868. More than Babe Ruth (714), more than Hank Aaron (755), and probably more than whatever number San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds — who at 751 is closing in on Aaron's Major League Baseball record — finishes with.

And though there are Japanese fans who say Oh's 868 should be recognized as the true home run record, Oh is having none of it.

"I am the man who hit the most home runs — in Japan," he says diplomatically. "The Japanese media want to describe me as the true record holder. But I never considered myself that way."

The answer is characteristically humble from a man whose public persona could be described as the anti-Bonds.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 4, 2007 11:33 AM
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