Sankei is first with the news that Sadaharu Oh has decided to retire after this baseball season. This may be just the answer to Japan’s most recent baseball woes.
Mr. Oh is a national icon In 1977, he became the first recipient of the People’s Honor Award (Kokumin Eiyo Shou) for breaking Hank Aaron’s lifetime home-run record with his 756th home run*. (Where that left Josh Gibson’s even longer if less-well-recorded string of home runs, we Japanese preferred not to dwell on.) Much later in 2006, he led the Japanese national team to the first World Baseball (Instant?) Classic championship and enhanced his already godlike status. In fact, after the Beijing Olympics debacle, where the Japanese team failed to win even a bronze medal against a motley crew of American minor leaguers, he is probably the only man who can lead the Japanese team during the second, 2009 WBC games in the United States and be forgiven in case our team fails to win a medal.
One thing stood between him and a repeat performance: his health. Noticeably frailer from his bout with cancer—now in remission—and battered by family issues, he is in no shape to manage the Softbank Hawks full-time then shoulder the burden of assembling a Japanese WBC squad including some genuine major-league all-stars and taking them half way across the globe under the watchful eyes of an expectant Japanese public to compete against the best that the United States, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic (not to mention those pesky South Koreans and Cubans) have to offer . Leaving the Hawks clears the way for an international farewell tour that would tug at the hearts of the Japanese public and put a capstone on his career and not so coincidentally provide more than a boatload of stories for Yomiuri—he made his reputation as a slugging first baseman for the Yomiuri Giants—and the rest of the Japanese media.
Mr. Oh also happens to be a citizen of the Republic of China/Taiwan/Chinese Taipei. His mother is Japanese, but that was not enough in those days for him to retain Japanese citizenship. For your reference, our first post-WW II national sports hero, the professional wrestler Rikidozan, happened to be a North Korean national. Think about it.
On the other hand, we Japanese don’t really talk about these things. In fact, the public was mostly in the dark about Rikidozan’s nationality. Think about that, too.
* For the record, Mr. Aaron was very gracious with regard to Mr. Oh’s achievement and the Japanese celebration thereof.