Men of iron find grounds for respect

June 14, 1996|By John Eisenberg

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In the clubhouse before the game last night at Kauffman Stadium, Cal Ripken shook hands with Sachio Kinugasa and nodded to the next locker.

"I'd like you to meet my brother, Billy," Cal said.

Bill stood and shook hands with Kinugasa, the retired Japanese third baseman who played in 2,215 straight games.

"How old is he?" Kinugasa asked Cal in halting English.

"Twenty-two," Bill blurted, cheating considerably.

Kinugasa nodded, then took a second look at Bill and burst out laughing, getting the joke.

He was at ease on the night Ripken tied his world record for consecutive games played, a trim 49-year-old with a bald head and an easy smile that lighted up the room.

American fans seem to be having trouble crossing international lines and getting up for Ripken's last historical hurdle -- plenty of good seats are available for tonight's record-breaker -- but Kinugasa is lending the occasion a dignified figure that warrants respect.

"I've gotten to meet Cal over the past few days," he said through an interpreter, "and I was very pleased to learn that we have the same philosophy and approach to baseball. It is wonderful that a person with that approach is the one who is breaking my record."

Any sadness at seeing his record broken?

"None," said Kinugasa, who is almost a head shorter than Ripken, at 5 feet 9 and 160 pounds. "The point of having

records is for new players to come along and break them."

Ripken's and Kinugasa's records are different, of course, almost apples and oranges. They were set in different baseball worlds, against different types of pitching at different levels of the game. The Japanese game is "somewhere between Triple-A and the major leagues here," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson, who played two seasons in Japan in the '70s.

But none of that should denigrate what Kinugasa accomplished in playing in every game for the Hiroshima Carp for 17 seasons.

It isn't a major-league record, but it was a remarkable feat. To deny its merit on any grounds is just Ugly Americanism.

"Any time you play that many games in a row, it's impressive," Johnson said. "I don't care where it's happening, in sandlot ball or whatever."

It is true that Kinugasa extended his streak a handful of times with pinch hitting at-bats and otherwise token appearances.

It is also true he only had to play 130 games a year instead of 162 for Ripken.

On the other hand, he had to endure the standard Japanese training regimen, which is unthinkably hard by American standards.

"They're obsessed with having good, long practices over there," said Johnson, who hit 39 home runs in his two seasons with the Yomiuri Giants.

Japanese players begin training for their season in January, often working out in snow and ice. Physical training is emphasized far more than here. Sid Fernandez never would have made it.

"They had a running coach, which was a new experience for me," Johnson said. "He invented all these cartwheels and junk that we had to do. Then we'd go out in the outfield and leapfrog over each other. I'm serious. My hamstrings were on fire. I had sore muscles that I didn't even know I had."

But all Japanese players have to endure that. Kinugasa went far beyond the norm. He played with five broken bones at different times during his streak.

The most serious injury occurred when he was hit by a pitch in 1979 and suffered a fractured left shoulder blade. His doctors ordered him not play, but he went to the park, taped up his shoulder and took swings in batting practice. His manager gave him an at-bat.

According to Robert Whiting's book about Japanese baseball, "You Gotta Have Wa," Kinugasa was almost embarrassed by the attention he received when he broke Gehrig's record in 1987.

"If we have a game, I want to play, that's all," he said.

He hit 504 home runs during his career, batted .270 and played on five championship teams.

"Five hundred home runs? He seems too small for that," said Brady Anderson, watching Kinugasa move across the dugout last night during batting practice.

Kinugasa posed for photographers with Ripken several times before the game, the last time in the dugout.

"How many years have you used that?" Kinugasa asked, pointing at Ripken's glove as they posed.

"Three years," Ripken said.

Ripken stared down at the glove. "Did you use one this big?" he asked.

"Not at third base," Kinugasa replied, laughing. "Shortstops use a bigger glove."

Ripken nodded.

Just a couple of ballplayers from different worlds, talking ball on a night they were brought together by history and their own unmatched wills.

"Have a good game," Kinugasa said as Ripken headed for the clubhouse.

Ripken stopped, turned and nodded with respect at the Japanese tetsu jin.

The Japanese Iron Man.

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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