Beyond Gehrig, Japanese ironman in world of his own

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If Cal Ripken 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 Ripken, 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.

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 that 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. "Banner, speeches, all this stuff flying in the air. They gave him 50 bouquets of roses. It was incredibly moving. People knew exactly what the record meant. There was a huge buildup in the papers for days."

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 non-existent.

"If Ripken goes on to pass Gehrig and Kinugasa, the Japanese people probably will be a little disappointed, but really they'll just respect Ripken that much more because he set the real world record," Graczyk said. "Mostly, we just want to see Kinugasa get recognized for what he accomplished."

Seymour Siwoff doesn't want to disparage Kinugasa's record, either. But he isn't about to change Gehrig's American record.

"It's a tremendous feat, what [Kinugasa] did, and I would never say anything bad about him in any language, but we're certainly not going to change our record and put a Japanese name in there," Siwoff said. "They play in a different league. Gehrig's record is the American major-league record, and American major-league baseball is the yardstick."

No doubt about that. Although Japanese baseball has many merits, its inferiority to the American game is acknowledged by both sides. The average American player has more speed and power.

"We're talking about two different levels of competition, that's clear," Siwoff said, "and the proper way to view this [Ripken-Gehrig-Kinugasa] thing, in my opinion, would be to say that [Kinugasa] didn't break Gehrig's record, but set a Japanese record. And Ripken is going to break the American record. That says enough."

But while the inferiority of the Japanese game might put an asterisk next to records such as Oh's, in which the quality of play must be factored, Kinugasa's record has nothing to do with the quality of play.

"When Oh set his records, the Japanese claimed they were world records and the Americans said, 'Well, the [Japanese] ballparks are smaller and the pitching is different,' " Graczyk said. "But we always felt that there could be no disputing Kinugasa's record. It had nothing to do with pitching and ballparks."

Said Siwoff: "Yes, technically, [Kinugasa's] record could be equated to any American record. But there are minor-leaguers here who have hit 66 homers in a season, which is a record. I get calls all the time from people, like softball players, who have exceeded some major-league record. I don't want to take anything away from their feats. But, like with [Kinugasa], it's not the major leagues, and thus, not a major-league record."

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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 partier 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 pre-game and day-off 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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Today, Kinugasa is a baseball commentator for the Tokyo Broadcasting System. He works two or three games a week on radio and television.

L "He's still around the ballpark all the time," Graczyk said.

As Ripken draws closer to Gehrig, news accounts are beginning to show up in the Japanese press. But Kinugasa hasn't commented.

"I've been meaning to ask him," Graczyk said. "I wanted to see if he was planning to go to the States to see Ripken break Gehrig's record."

Ripken's pursuit of Gehrig has always been viewed in this country as a two-headed entity involving Gehrig, the gallant, tragic record holder, and Ripken, the dogged pursuer. But there is Kinugasa, too.

"In this country we just hope to see him get more recognition if and when Ripken performs the great feat of passing Gehrig and possibly Kinugasa also," Graczyk said. "We have always believed that Kinugasa's record is a true world record."

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