Balentien's journey to superstardom
Former Seattle prospect breaks single-season home run record in Japan
Jose Bautista, David Ortiz, Jayson Werth, Chris Davis and Brandon Moss are among a select group of big league hitters who've taken a statistical leap forward in their mid-to-late 20s and crossed the threshold from "intriguing" to certified late bloomers.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows outfielder Wladimir Balentien rightfully belongs in that fraternity at age 29, but his story comes with a cross-cultural twist: In contrast to his fellow sluggers, Balentien traveled roughly 5,000 miles on his journey of self-discovery.
Balentien, known fondly as "Coco" among Japanese baseball fans, went deep twice on Sunday to pass Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Cabrera and the iconic Sadaharu Oh (who each hit 55 home runs) on Japan's single-season list with his 56th and 57th home runs this year.
The record shot was a watershed event in a professional career that began in 2000 when Seattle scout Karel Williams signed Balentien as a 16-year-old out of Curacao. Balentien made it to the big leagues long enough to hit 15 homers in 511 at-bats with Seattle and Cincinnati, but his hopes appeared to be fading when he spent the entire 2010 season in the minors with the Reds.
For me, he was just one of those guys who ran out of time. It's not like there were two clubs that passed on him and he went over there and played great. There were 30 clubs that passed on him, and he went over there and found his niche. It's kind of remarkable what he's done."" -- Former Mariners GM Bill Bavasi
How does a hitter saddled with the dreaded label of a "4A" player -- destined for a career in limbo between Triple-A ball and the majors -- become a baseball superstar half a world away? In Balentien's case, the transition was made possible by a perfect confluence of patience, raw talent and time.
Long before Balentien made headlines as Japan's new home run king, he was a highly regarded prospect in the Mariners' chain. He peaked at No. 5 on Baseball America's list of top Seattle prospects in 2008, behind Jeff Clement, Phillippe Aumont, Chris Tillman and Carlos Triunfel.
In 2007, Balentien doubled twice as the designated hitter for the World team in the All-Star Futures Game. Newspaper profiles made reference to his catchy nickname, "The Curacao Crusher," and former Seattle outfielder-turned-minor league coach Henry Cotto predicted he had the combination of power and speed to be a 30-homer, 30-steal man in the big leagues.
After the Mariners sent outfielder Adam Jones, Tillman and three other players to Baltimore in an ill-fated trade for pitcher Erik Bedard, they still envisioned Balentien as a significant part of their future. But Balentien came with enough caveats and yellow caution flags to make people wary. By all accounts, he was a good kid who loved baseball. But he didn't always play the game with the requisite passion or energy that scouts crave in prospects.
Daren Brown, Seattle's interim third-base coach this season, managed Balentien for several years in the minors and sat him down more than once to discuss the right way to make an impression.
"He enjoyed playing," Brown said. "If he wasn't in the lineup, he would come in and let you know he was OK, even if you were just giving him a day off.
"I'm not saying there weren't any problems. You're talking about a young kid in a different country who was basically growing up in the organization. I had meetings with him in my office. He was 21 or 22, and he would pop a ball up and not get to first base, and I took him out of a few games. It was just part of maturing and the learning process. I'm happy to see what he's doing now."
Balentien has always taken a healthy swing at the ball and has been challenged to make contact commensurate with his power. He was vulnerable against breaking balls earlier in his career and had plenty of holes in his swing for pitchers to exploit. Between the minor leagues and the big club in Seattle, Balentien struck out 718 times in 2,532 at-bats.
After Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi was fired by the team and landed a job in the Cincinnati front office, the Reds acquired Balentien in a trade for pitcher Robert Manuel. Late in the 2009 season, Balentien hit a 495-foot home run against Pittsburgh that was a testament to his ability to send balls into the less-populated regions of the stands. Reds broadcaster George Grande called it a "homer-and-a-half" and a "seat-denter if there ever was one."
But after two years in limbo with the Cincinnati organization, Balentien left for Japan when the Swallows needed an outfielder to replace Aaron Guiel.
"For me, he was just one of those guys who ran out of time," Bavasi said. "It's not like there were two clubs that passed on him and he went over there and played great. There were 30 clubs that passed on him, and he went over there and found his niche. It's kind of remarkable what he's done."
Balentien's 54th home run came against an eye-level fastball from Hiroshima Carp ace Kenta Maeda. When he tied the record with an opposite-field blast against the Carp at Jingu Stadium in Tokyo, he received a thunderous ovation and a bouquet of flowers upon crossing home plate. And now he's in a neighborhood where Rhodes, Cabrera, Randy Bass, Hideki Matsui and the hallowed Oh never dwelled. Even a minicontroversy over a new, livelier ball in the Japanese league this season hasn't dimmed the luster surrounding his achievement.
Where does Balentien go from here? Perhaps he has found a home for the rest of his baseball-playing days. Or maybe he's following a trail blazed by a beefy first baseman who made waves in Japan before returning stateside to dent plenty of seats with the Detroit Tigers in the early 1990s.
"Who knows?" Bavasi said. "We might have another Cecil Fielder on our hands."
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