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Thursday, Oct. 11, 2001

SPORTS SCOPE

Oh's treatment of Rhodes shameful


When it comes to sports, I have never been a big fan of sacred cows. The problem with them is, they just don't know when it's time to be put out to pasture.

Whether it is Sadaharu Oh -- who has managed to disgrace himself not just once, but twice now while trying to protect his home-run record -- or Cal Ripken Jr. -- who should have retired a year or two ago -- or Rickey Henderson -- who stayed way too long -- they never seem to realize that they are disgracing the game that made them what they are.

I have always believed in the adage that it's better to retire a year too early than a year too late. That goes for players and managers.

Athletes and former athletes are, by nature, very egotistical people. Fawned over by family, friends and fans for years, many of them never seem to realize that at some point, the world does not revolve around them anymore. Oh's behavior two weeks ago, while Tuffy Rhodes of the Kintetsu Buffaloes was trying to hit his 56th home run of the season -- to break a tie with Oh for the single-season record of 55 -- typifies everything that is wrong with Japanese baseball.

Letting his starting pitcher Keizaburo Tanoue pitch around Rhodes in the Sept. 30 game at the Fukuoka Dome was a complete disgrace.

You know it has gotten out of hand when Rhodes' star teammate Norihiro Nakamura says, "This is why Japanese baseball is no good," and Japanese commissioner Hiromori Kawashima takes the extraordinary step of releasing a statement saying that what Oh and the Hawks did, "Went against every principle of fair play."

You have to hand it to Nakamura and Kawashima; at least they had the guts to take a stand on the issue, as opposed to Oh -- who stood in the dugout and watched the farce being played out and who could only pontificate and say, "It's all up to the players to decide."

This is why Japanese baseball is Mickey Mouse. Can you imagine if this type of incident happened in the majors? There would be universal outrage.

A manager who tried to protect his own record in this fashion would be slammed by the media, the opposition and, most importantly, his own players. The guy would be labeled a coward and a poor sport.

The difference is, this wouldn't happen in the majors. They would be more likely to challenge the guy and say, "Hey, if he wants it, he is going to have to earn it," and try to blow a fastball by him.

Nobody pitched around Barry Bonds during his recent record-setting run unless it was a team seriously involved in the playoff picture. Bonds is not very popular among his teammates, opponents or the media, but nevertheless was treated professionally by the opposition.

The funny thing is, in 1964, Oh hit his 55th homer in the 140th game of the season, while Rhodes accomplished the feat in his 135th game this season. We haven't heard much about that though. It has been conveniently overlooked by the Japanese press.

I think in Oh's case the commissioner's statement was an improvement over the way some of the controversy here has been handled in the past, but didn't go far enough. Perhaps a fine in the neighborhood of 10 million yen would have helped the team understand the significance of what it did.

But that could never happen in Japan, because the commissioner has very little real power compared to the owners. Not to say that Major League Baseball is that different -- remember, the commissioner of MLB used to be one of the owners.

The bottom line is, at some point, you have to cut off the comedy routine and say, "We've got to start acting like a big-time entity, because we are one."

One of my favorite stories is from back in the 1970s when two Japanese coaches received "lifetime bans" for their part in physically abusing an umpire during a game, only to have the "bans" lifted by the start of spring training the very next season. Talk about slapstick.

Caught in a time warp, Japanese baseball just can't help itself.

Whether it is the assault of umpire Mike DiMuro by the Chunichi Dragons in 1997 going unpunished or the alleged sign-stealing scandal of Oh's Hawks in 1999 ending with a bogus investigation, business goes on as usual with a wink and slap on the back from the old-boys network.

There is some good in the game here though, as the Buffaloes exhibited after their final game of the regular season against the Orix BlueWave in Kobe last Friday. After BlueWave manager Akira Ogi received the traditional farewell doage from his team, the Buffaloes -- who Ogi used to manage -- stole the show by giving Ogi their own doage.

That is the kind of class and sportsmanship the game here needs more of -- putting egos and pettiness aside and saluting somebody who has given the game their all.



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