Although Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes failed to break Japan's single-season home-run record of 55 during his final game of the regular season Friday night, the American slugger got a big consolation prize. His team, the Kintetsu Buffaloes, won the pennant and is heading to the Japanese World Series, after years in last place.
Unfortunately for Rhodes and for Japanese baseball, however, the season ends with a bitter aftertaste.
In one of the last games of the season, pitchers with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks on Sept. 30 refused to throw the ball anywhere near the strike zone during Rhodes' at-bats in a bid to keep the record--which Rhodes tied Sept. 24--in Japanese hands. Daiei had more than a passing interest in Rhodes' attempt: Daiei's manager, Sadaharu Oh, set the record 37 years ago during his 1964 season with the Yomiuri Giants.
This wasn't the first time Japanese baseball resorted to such tactics when a foreign player got close to a record.
One big difference this year, however, was the reaction by Japanese fans, columnists and baseball officials.
Previously, such blatant favoritism was viewed as an integral part of Japanese baseball, the vaguely unseemly cost of a system that puts great emphasis on being loyal to those in the same group.
This time, after the Daiei-Buffaloes game, many Japanese condemned Daiei's unwillingness to pitch to Rhodes.
In perhaps the most striking sign of change in a country where officialdom commands great respect, Commissioner Hiromori Kawashima called Daiei's move an insult to Japanese fans.
"Denying someone the chance to break the record on purpose undermines the game of baseball, which is based on fair play," he said.
Oh denied any role.
"I leave everything up to the players, and I never said to avoid pitching to him," he said.
His pitching coach, Yoshiharu Wakana, took the heat for the decision.
"Fifty-five home runs should be kept as a symbol of Japanese baseball," he told Japanese writers. "I didn't want a foreigner to break Oh's record."
Hisako Ueno in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.