Two innings into the Japanese league season opener, the fans in the left-field bleachers erupt. Wladimir Balentien, reigning home-run king...
TOKYO — Two innings into the Japanese league season opener, the fans in the left-field bleachers erupt.
Wladimir Balentien, reigning home-run king of Japan, has stepped to the plate. Several thousand die-hards in the “fan section” for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows break into a trumpet-and-song-infused cheer that ends with the words: “Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray for Balentien!”
Just three years ago, nobody in Seattle was going hooray for anything Balentien did. The strikeout-prone outfielder was cited as one of several prospect busts under former general manager Bill Bavasi and shipped off to the Reds by Jack Zduriencik in a deal just as forgettable.
But things changed for Balentien last year, after he’d bounced around the minors a bit. He joined the Swallows for the 2011 season and wound up clubbing 31 home runs, delivering the kind of power the Mariners had once envisioned him doing in the majors.
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Now, the Curacao native is a celebrity on the other side of the Pacific.
“When I began the season and things started going well, I was in the newspaper a lot,” said Balentien, still only 27. “Everywhere you went, people were talking about me coming into the league my first year and having success. So people start looking forward to seeing you. When you walk through the street, or go to the restaurant, people come up to you. They’re very nice people here, everybody. So they come to say hi, or to wish you good luck. Stuff like that, so it’s a nice experience.”
Balentien doesn’t regret his time with the Mariners. He knows he had an opportunity — however brief — but failed to seize the moment.
“If you don’t do what you have to do at the time, other people come in and do it and that’s everywhere you go,” he said. “I had my opportunity. I wasn’t able to get good results in the little time I had, but I’ve left that all in the past and I’m just looking forward.”
The fans here have songs and cheers for every player who steps to the plate, so the treatment Balentien gets is nothing unusual. They just seem to sing a little louder and longer for him.
Balentien went 1 for 4 with two strikeouts in the opener, a 4-0 win over Yomiuri.
The big, imported home-run bopper is also nothing new in Japanese baseball, and Balentien is merely the latest foreigner to fill a time-honored tradition in a league where raw power isn’t that common.
But he’s happy to be in a place where he’s appreciated. His wife just gave birth to the couple’s second child, a girl, and will join him here in a few weeks.
Balentien stopped by to visit the Mariners in their Tokyo Dome clubhouse after a Swallows workout there before Thursday’s Seattle-Oakland clash. He still knows Miguel Olivo, Felix Hernandez and a handful of current Mariners who were minor-leaguers in Seattle with him.
He gave Hernandez a bat made of Japanese wood to pass on to Carlos Peguero, who had asked for one. Balentien hasn’t ruled out playing in the majors again at some point, but is content where he is for now.
“I came over here, and it’s kind of the same as the big leagues,” he said. “Not 100 percent, but it’s kind of like it. I’m happy about it and my family is happy, and that’s what it’s all about.”
|Wladimir Balentien struggled as a Mariners prospect but has found a home in Japan’s baseball league.|
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