CAUSING A MAJOR COMMOTION : Bob Horner’s Arrival in Japan Has Left Fans, Media in Frenzy

Washington Post

“We’d better play it safe,” thought the sponsors of a pro baseball game in Nagasaki last month. “Buy some insurance. It’s only 50 feet from the outfield fence to where the old folks play croquet. Who knows but what a ball or two will crack some skulls out there?”

Any Japanese would have had such worries. Bob (Red Devil) Horner, former Atlanta Brave third baseman, was coming to town. He sent one ball over the fence in his debut in Japanese pro ball May 5. Three more followed in his second game. Two more in his fourth. The feat comes easier here than in the United States, since Japanese fields are a bit smaller.

Japanese have been swept up in frenzied worship and wonder for “mammoth superman” Horner and his “stadium-exiting bullets.” Fans grasp for his handshake. Mobs of photographers stalk him. Reporters study his personal habits for clues to his baffling batting power--his cowboy boots, gold chains and reputed ability to down two bottles of bourbon at a sitting.

He even is credited with reversing a nose dive in national morale caused by economic hard times.

“I look forward to watching the news after work,” said Tokiko Nishijima, a boutique clerk who roots for the Yomiuri Giants. “Even fans of opposing teams are delighted.”


Wrote Sports Nippon newspaper: “A Horner wind is blowing across Japan.” Kazuhiro Kiyohara and Hiromitsu Ochiai, two top Japanese sluggers, “appear now to be small. Pro baseball fans are talking only of Horner.”

Happiest of all are the long-suffering loyalists of the Yakult Swallows, Horner’s team. The Swallows have perennially finished at or near the bottom of the Japanese Central League. Now there is talk of the pennant, which the team has won only once, in 1978. Ticket sales have almost doubled and the stock of the team’s owner, the Yakult soft drink conglomerate, is up.

Yakult products are sold door to door around Japan by 58,000 bicyle-peddling saleswomen. “Clients often ask them about baseball and Horner,” a team official said.

Horner, who has 10 homers and is batting .333, is handling his fame in a style the Japanese like: He appears stoic at the plate and has self-effacing praise for his team.

“The bottom line is the team winning,” he said recently. “If I hit a hundred home runs and the team doesn’t win, so what? But if I hit 15 home runs and we win the championship, that’s more important.”

He is a rare bird, an American on the field in Japan at the peak of his career rather than its waning days. He is 29, a National League Rookie of the Year in 1978. In nine seasons with the Braves, he batted .278 with 215 home runs and 652 runs batted in. In a game against the Philadelphia Phillies in July of 1986, he hit four home runs.

He became a free agent Nov. 12. Earlier this year, he turned down the Braves’ contract offers of $4.5 million over three seasons and $3.9 million over two.

His deal here is said to be worth $1.3 million, plus living expenses, for one year, perhaps with $500,000 thrown in as a signing bonus. But Horner said it was baseball, not money, that brought him across the Pacific.

“The Japanese called and made a good offer,” he said. “I was at the point of thinking I was going to sit out the whole year.”

The initial reception was not entirely friendly. The press unearthed stories about weight problems and drinking, vices that Japanese players are honor-bound to avoid, and in general do. Injuries were also cited. But they all became part of the lore with his barrage of home runs.

But he is not hitting balls out of the park as he did in his first few games. He did not hit his 10th until early June. He blames the pitchers.

“They’re just pitching around me,” he said. “You can only work with what you’ve got. I’m going to learn to have a lot of patience at the plate.”

But others see it as his own failings. In the game during which he hit No. 10, for instance, he struck out in each of his three other at-bats.

But a question also arises--do the pitchers resent him as a foreigner? Japanese fans generally adore the batting power of imported players. But it leaves some baseball nationalists here fuming about all this brawn undermining the fine points of team spirit and cooperation on which Japan’s “unique” version of the game is meant to be based.

Things can come to a head when foreigners threaten to break records. A prime case occurred in 1985, when Randy Bass of the Hanshin Tigers was one short of tying Sadaharu Oh’s single-season record of 55 home runs. By chance, in their last game of the season, the Tigers playing against Manager Oh’s Giants.

Bass was walked four times in four at-bats. Some people said the Giant pitchers would have done the same against a Japanese, to save face for their master. Others saw it as a case of the Japanese banding together to protect one of their own.

“You can’t take anything away from Sadaharu Oh,” Horner said. “He’s done some wonderful things, and all credit goes to him. But at the same time, records are made to be broken.”

The world of sumo wrestling is experiencing similar strains, as a quarter-ton Samoan American who fights under the name Konishiki moves toward top ranking. A cartoon in the Weekly Asahi magazine put Horner and Konishiki together singing a duet:

“It’s all through power that we are so strong. We’re going to crush your silly strategies. We don’t ever want to go home . . . “

Foreign baseball players remain a restricted import item--two to a team--and periodically there is talk of barring them altogether. From the other side come pleas for full liberalization. If fans want more foreign players, let them have them, argues sports columnist Takenori Emoto.