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Not So Fast, Cal : Gehrig’s Mark Was Eclipsed by Japanese Player

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If Cal Ripken Jr. succeeds in breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games record of 2,130 games on Sept. 6 at Camden Yards, the baseball world will revel in the chance to see history being made.

But one corner of that world--Japan--will view the event with at least a touch of skepticism.

It’s not that the Japanese hold anything against the Baltimore Oriole shortstop, who is enormously popular there, or that they believe his streak is anything less than the marvel it obviously is.

It’s just that, to the Japanese, Ripken would need to play in another 85 straight games after Sept. 6 before breaking the world record for consecutive games played.

That record, they say, belongs to Sachio Kinugasa, a third baseman for the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Central League. He played in 2,215 straight games--85 more than Gehrig--between 1970 and 1987.

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Unlike his countryman, Sadaharu Oh, who became well-known in the United States for breaking the home run records of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, Kinugasa is obscure here. Seymour Siwoff, general manager of the Elias Sporting Bureau, major league baseball’s official statistician, said Friday he had never heard of Kinugasa.

But Kinugasa is a Japanese sporting icon whose record is among the touchstones of his country’s sporting culture. The day he passed Gehrig--June 13, 1987--was not unlike a national holiday.

“They stopped the game in the third inning and had a ticker-tape parade and a huge ceremony right there in the stadium,” said Rick Lancelotti, a former American major leaguer who was Kinugasa’s teammate with the Carp in 1987.

Lancelotti hasn’t been back to Japan in seven years, but he doubts that fans there are overly thrilled about Ripken’s pursuit of Gehrig--and Kinugasa.

“They’re big on records over there, especially American records they break,” Lancelotti said. “They’re very competitive about these things. When Oh broke Babe Ruth’s record, they went nuts. I’m sure they view this [consecutive games] record as their record now because of Kinugasa.”

That is true, said Wayne Graczyk, an American sportswriter based in Tokyo.

“People here feel that Gehrig has the American major league record and Kinugasa has the world record,” Graczyk said. “There is no animosity toward Ripken as he gets closer. He has played here several times [on tours] and people like him. But there is disappointment here because no one ever mentions Kinugasa as Ripken gets closer to Gehrig. It is always just Gehrig and Ripken.”

Kinugasa is mentioned on page 124 of the Orioles 1995 media guide, under the heading “World Record.” But there is no denying that his profile in this country is all but nonexistent.

Kinugasa was born in 1947 in Kyoto. The circumstances of his birth would haunt him. His father was a black American serviceman who was stationed in Okinawa after the war and left the family. Kinugasa had dark features and endured taunts as a child.

“They have words over there for people who aren’t 100% percent born and raised Japanese,” Lancelotti said. “I think he had a lot to prove because of his background. He had a lot to overcome. He focused on one thing and excelled at it.”

His parentage remains a sore subject for him to this day. According to “You Gotta Have Wa,” a book on Japanese baseball by American journalist Robert Whiting, neither of Kinugasa’s authorized biographies mentions his father, and Carp management had a standing order that no one mention it.

Kinugasa broke in with the Carp in 1965, at age 18. According to Whiting’s book, he was a flashy dresser and known as a partyer in his early years. He spent his signing bonus on, of all things, a Ford Galaxy.

He started out as a catcher, but was small for the job at 5 feet 9 and 180 pounds, so he moved to first base, then finally to third base in 1975.

Although much smaller than Ripken, he was similar to the Orioles’ shortstop in many ways. He was an elegant fielder and a .270 career hitter. He hit for power, producing 504 home runs in his career, and he was regarded as a professional hitter who would faithfully deliver runners in scoring position.

He also was known for his work ethic. He practiced his swing in the mirror for an hour every night, according to Whiting, and he was one of the hardest workers on the team.

“He took ground balls endlessly,” Lancelotti said. “He’d still be out there taking infield less than an hour before the game.”

His swing was the secret to his success. He took a harder cut than most Japanese players, whose coaches often prefer a more technical approach to batting. “It was a sweet swing,” Lancelotti said. “He wasn’t big, but he could get the ball out there.”

Kinugasa’s consecutive games streak began in 1970 and ended with his retirement at age 40 in 1987. He didn’t miss a game for the last 18 years of his 22-year career. “He never came out of the lineup,” Graczyk said. “He just retired.”

It took him 18 years to accomplish what Gehrig did in 15 (and Ripken is doing in 14) because the Japanese regular season lasts only 130 games. But though the season is shorter, spring training begins in January and players endure much harder pregame and off-day physical training.

Kinugasa had several close calls along the way. He suffered five broken bones during the streak. The most serious injury occurred when he was hit by a pitch in the back in 1979 and taken to the hospital.

According to Whiting’s book, doctors diagnosed the injury as a fracture of the left shoulder blade and ordered Kinugasa not to play. His streak stood at 1,123 games. But he showed up at the park the next day and swung his bat as hard as ever in the batting cage before the game. His manager put him in the lineup.


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