|Monday, November 18
For Cabrera, 55 was the limit in Japan
By Jim Caple
Each day during the major league All-Star tour of Japan, Hideki Matsui held press briefings with Japanese and American reporters. One night he dueled Barry Bonds in a home run derby. Each game, the fans chanted for him to hit a home run. Late in the tour, the Yankees flew in club officials to take a look at him.
Which was no surprise to Alex Cabrera. "You remember what country I'm in right now?" he said before a game in Osaka.
If Cabrera ever was allowed to forget where he was, he could be forgiven because he's played in virtually every country where there is professional baseball. The 30-year-old Venezuelan has played in his home country, Mexico, the United States, Taiwan and Japan. He played briefly in the majors, hitting .263 with five home runs in 80 at-bats for the Diamondbacks in 2000. Arizona sold his contract to the Seibu Lions the next winter.
He hit 49 home runs in 2001. He hit 55 this season, tying the record originally set by Japanese baseball icon Sadaharu Oh. He should have broken the record but that's not the way it works in Japan.
"They didn't want me to get the record," Cabrera said. "The last 20 at-bats of the season, I think I only saw one strike. All records are for the Japanese. All my teammates wanted me to break the record. A lot of the players on other teams wanted me to break it, too.
"The pitchers want to throw me strikes but the managers and coaches don't let them. The pitchers hit me and throw in my face. I say, 'It's part of the game -- throw strikes. Be professional.'
"Here, if you hit a home run your first at-bat, they walk you the next three. In America, you get a chance to hit more home runs. They challenge you."
He might want to talk to Bonds about that.
Teams walked Bonds plenty when he approached Mark McGwire's home run record, but the crucial difference is they didn't use that strategy to keep him from breaking the record; they did it to keep him from driving in runs to beat them. Not so with Cabrera, nor with the other non-Japanese sluggers who came before him. This has been going on a long time in Japan.
"Tuffy Rhodes told me the same thing," Cabrera said. "He said, 'You get to 55, they'll not let you break it.' "
In 1985, Randy Bass hit 54 home runs and would have broken Oh's record but the closer he got to it, the fewer strikes he received. Last year Rhodes hit 55 home runs but got no further, either. This year it was Cabrera's turn.
By the most amazing of coincidences, Oh was the opposing manager during final-week games when each player stopped getting pitches to hit. Cabrera charges that he was told Oh threatened to fine pitchers $10,000 if they threw Cabrera a strike, though publicly, at least, Oh ordered his pitchers to throw strikes to Cabrera, who hit home run No. 54 against them. He hit only one more in the final seven games, and in one game he was hit once and walked twice.
"In the past there has been more of that sort of unfairness," Matsui said, sympathizing with Cabrera. "But it has been decreasing in the last couple years and I just hope that in the future it will get better."
The knock on Cabrera in the U.S. was that he couldn't hit the curveball. He says that's nonsense and says he would like to return to the majors to prove his hitting isn't restricted to one side of the international dateline.
"If someone gives me a chance in the majors, I'll hit more than 40 jacks," he said. "If I have a chance to go back to America, I will. If someone calls me, I go."
Well, maybe. Although Cabrera says he holds the option on his contract for next season, Japanese papers reported that it was the other way around. And major league teams are unlikely to pay him as much money as he earns in Japan.
So Cabrera could very well stay in Japan, taking pitchers deep and looking for strikes.
"(If) I play one more year in Japan," he said, "I'll break that record."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.