Beyond Gehrig, Japanese ironman in world of his own

July 23, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

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."

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