Man Ripken passed was unlikely hero Kinugasa's U.S. blood made hime target in Japan

June 23, 1996|By Masaru Ikei and John B Holway

ON JUNE 14 in Kansas City, Cal Ripken's 14-year pursuit of the consecutive-game playing record came to an end. It was game 2,116 for Cal, putting him one ahead of the world record, held by Sachio Kinugasa, who set the mark in 1985 with the Hiroshima Carp.

Red, white and blue American blood courses through both men's veins. Kinugasa is the son of a black American GI who left the boy and his mother after Sachio was born in 1947.

Now a 49-year-old commentator, the swarthy Kinugasa is balding on top but still has the powerful physique of his playing days. He's a jolly man who laughs and jokes a lot.

Sachio still remembers the day he first saw Ripken, in Hiroshima in 1983, when the Orioles visited Japan. He chuckles that Cal didn't look like a man who would one day break Lou Gehrig's mark.

But then again, he admits, Ripken probably didn't guess that Kinugasa would do it either.

"Ripken was tall," Kinugasa marvels -- no Japanese shortstops were that big. At 5 feet 8 inches and 161 pounds, Kinugasa, a third baseman, was a full six inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than the American.

Some U.S. fans may downplay Kinugasa's achievement because he didn't play in the U.S. majors.

However, it's just as tough to play a game in Hiroshima as it is in Baltimore. Perhaps tougher. The Japanese season is only 130 games, compared with 154 in Gehrig's day and 162 in Ripken's. Thus, the Americans had to play more games a year, but Kinugasa had to play more years. Gehrig and Ripken were 35 when they set their marks. Kinugasa was 40. Will Ripken's streak still be going when he reaches 40?

Even after his record is broken, Kinugasa will still own three marks that neither Gehrig nor Ripken can reach:

504 home runs

1,587 strikeouts

161 times hit by pitches

The homers would roughly equal 604 in a 162-game schedule.

The strikeouts are a Japanese record, though still 1,000 below the world mark held by Reggie Jackson.

The HBPs rank second in Japanese annals. As a mixed-blood baby, Sachio was the butt of discrimination by pure-blooded Japanese and a tempting target for pitchers. Several times his streak was almost ended when pitchers plunked him.

The last time came just days before he passed Gehrig's record, when he was drilled by a pitch on the fist. It almost broke his hand, but unwilling to be benched and break his streak, he gritted his teeth in a samurai smile and trotted to first.

Earlier, he had been drilled in the rib but refused to come out of the game. It was later revealed that he was playing with a cracked rib.

Young Sachio's mother enrolled him in Osaka's prestigious Heian high school, a Buddhist institution which also boasted one of the best baseball programs in the country. Smaller than the other boys, he surveyed the hundreds of candidates who turned out for the first day of baseball practice, then noticed the short line of those trying out for catcher, and got into it.

High school baseball in Japan is more like Marine boot camp, and misplays are corrected with a cuff on the ear. Sachio, a shade darker than the other boys, received his share and more.

Kinugasa also took Judo and credits it with giving him the powerful legs he feels helped him break Gehrig's mark.

The national high school tournament every August rivals the professional game in fan intensity. The week-long tourney plays to packed stands, plus millions more on nationwide TV. In Sachio's junior year he emerged as one of the brightest stars.

Ripken's record pursuit brought Kinugasa belated celebrity, though it's overshadowed by the immense celebrity of Hideo Nomo of the Los Angeles Dodgers. But if there had been an American sout in Osaka back in 1965, Kinugasa shrugs, he might have preceded Nomo to the States.

The next year he was signed by the Hiroshima Carp for a $30,000 bonus. He gave half to his mother and spent the rest on a Ford Galaxie like that of his hero, Willie Mays.

At that time Hiroshima was one of the "have-nots" of Japanese baseball. One of the smallest cities in the league, it didn't have a wealthy corporate owner as the other teams did. But it did boast the wildest fans outside of Brooklyn.

Before long, Kinugasa was joined by slugging outfielder Koji Yamamoto, and in 1976 the two "red Hats" sparked the team to its first pennant. In all, they would win five flags.

Kinugasa, a career .254 hitter, enjoyed his best year in 1984 -- .329, 31 home runs, and a league leading 102 RBIs, plus a Gold Glove. He was named Most Valuable Player, and the Carp beat the Hankyu Braves in the Japan Series, four games to three.

In 1986, Kinugasa slumped to .205. But with Gehrig's record only 45 games ahead, he insisted on coming back in 1987 to raise the mark to 2,215.

Masaru Ikei is a Yokohama history professor and frequent baseball commentator for Japanese newspapers. John B Holway is a co-editor of Total Baseball's Japanese section; in 1955 he wrote the first English book on Japanese baseball.

Pub Date: 06/23/96

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