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Mr. Oh will always be king in Japan
[March 19, 2006]

Mr. Oh will always be king in Japan

(South Florida Sun-Sentinel (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) SAN DIEGO _ Everyone in Japan calls him "Mr. Oh."

Eight hundred sixty-eight home runs buy you a certain amount of respect, but it's more than that with Sadaharu Oh.

His status as the world's home run leader and the greatest player in Japanese baseball history is unquestioned. He has been immortalized in everything from film to a Beastie Boys rap ("I got more hits than Sadaharu Oh.")

Yet here he is at age 65, still managing, still teaching, still giving back to the game he made look so easy with that powerful left-handed swing. And doing so without a hint of pretension.

Ichiro Suzuki, Japan's top modern player, put it best Sunday on the eve of the World Baseball Classic final against Cuba. Asked what it's like to play for Oh on Team Japan, the proud and mysterious Ichiro made no effort to hide his reverence.

"Mr. Oh acts just the same privately and also publicly," Ichiro said. "Normally when I meet people, I do get a different impression from the first impression that I had publicly. But that never is the case with Mr. Oh."

Many are surprised to see Japan make it this far considering its roster includes just two major-leaguers: Ichiro and reliever Akinori Otsuka. Hideki Matsui declined to play. So did Kaz Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi, So Taguchi, Hideo Nomo, Kaz Ishii and most of the other Japanese to make the jump across the Pacific the past decade.

Yet Oh never let his players feel inferior or in any way relieved from the obligation of giving their all. All three losses in the preliminary rounds came by one run, including a pair to rival South Korea and another to Team USA in a controversial ending.

Who will ever forget the sight of Mr. Oh ambling out of the dugout toward American umpire Bob Davidson after his horrendous decision to overrule a colleague's call and take a Japanese run off the board? It was like one of the game's gods coming down from Mt. Olympus.

Even with the blown call, Japan still made it here, thanks to a shutout over South Korea in the semifinals. Oh practically guaranteed a Japanese victory in that one.

His players took note and came through when it mattered most. It also helped that Oh dropped the struggling Ichiro from leadoff to third in the lineup and sent up pinch hitter Kosuke Fukudome for the two-run homer that broke the game open in the seventh.

Suddenly Japan, which has won just two international baseball competitions, the IBAF World Cup in 1973 and 1997, is on the verge of a stunning breakthrough.

"I think Oh-san has done a great job," Warren Cromartie said Sunday by phone from his home in South Florida. "The guys are starting to rise to the occasion, and he has a lot to do with that. He lets his guys go out and play, but he expects guys to know the game."

Cromartie, back as a weekend radio host after managing last summer in the independent Golden Baseball League, played five seasons for Oh in the Japanese league from 1984-88. It was Oh who made the decision to sign Cromartie over better known Americans Dave Parker and Amos Otis, and the two grew so close that Oh is the godfather of Cromartie's son Cody, now 20.

The product of a Taiwanese father and a Japanese mother, Oh experienced discrimination while growing up. He was banned from playing in the Japanese youth leagues, so he always had a particular appreciation for the difficulty American gaijin had in making the transition to the culture.

"He's a great guy with a lot of wisdom and a lot of information," Cromartie said. "He's a fairly simple guy. He doesn't go around boasting about who he is. He is very communicative, very approachable."

That modesty extended to a recent conversation with Ichiro. Not surprisingly, the subject of hitting came up, and Ichiro wondered if Oh ever felt like he had truly mastered the toughest task in sports.

"Did it ever become easier for you at the plate?" Ichiro asked.

Oh, who retired in 1980, smiled.

"No," he said. "That never happened to me."

Ichiro called that "a great answer" and one that "gave me such great courage" considering the source. Cromartie knew exactly what Ichiro meant as Oh, entering his 17th season as a manager, had put him at ease many times.

"He took me under his wing, and I put my trust in him," Cromartie said. "He was like a father figure to me. I think the world of the guy. He just has that certain aura about him that is so different from any other human being I've ever met."

You might call it a regal bearing, which befits a man whose surname means "king" in Japanese.

Win or lose Monday night, he will always be Mr. Oh.


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