By Scott Melesky
Statistics are a way journalists and fans can measure the greatness of athletes in sports, especially baseball. In the major leagues in both Japan and the United States, four prestigious statistical clubs demonstrate a player’s greatness: the 3,000 hit and 300 home run clubs for batters and the 300 win and 3,000 strikeout clubs for pitchers.
In a series of articles, I will write stories on each Japanese player in these prestigious clubs. I want to focus on the distinguished players that played in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and highlight their contributions to the game. I am going to start this series by highlighting the NPB players in the 300 Home Run Club.
There are 40 players in the prestigious NPB 300 Home Run Club. I have profiled 11 players in the previous articles. Until now, they have all been native-born Japanese baseball players. The 29th player in the 300 Home Run Club is Alex Cabrera. Cabrera is the first foreign, or gaijin, player to be featured. Cabrera, Alex Ramirez, and Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes are the three foreign baseball players that have hit 300 or more home runs in NPB. Cabrera is of Venezuelan descent and played for the Chinese Professional League’s Koos Group Whales in 1999 and Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks in 2000 before playing 12 seasons in NPB.
With the Diamondbacks, Cabrera got off to an incredible start, hitting a home run in his first at-bat. He would finish the season with a .263 batting average, five home runs, and 14 runs batted in over 31 games. Cabrera’s rookie season failed to impress Arizona, who sold his contract to the Seibu Lions in 2001.
Though not appreciated in MLB, Cabrera would be a “game-changer” in NPB. His career would span 12 seasons with the Seibu Lions, Orix Buffaloes, and Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. Cabrera is 29th on the NPB 300 Home Run Club with 357 home runs. In his time as a first baseman and designated hitter in NPB, Cabrera compiled a .303 batting average with 357 home runs, 1,368 hits, and 949 RBI. Over 12 seasons, Cabrera was five times named “Best Nine” in the Central League. He also won a Gold Glove in 2008.
Cabrera had an impressive debut with the Lions. In 2001, he had a .282 batting average with 49 home runs and 124 RBI. He continued his torrid pace in 2002 with a .336 batting average, 55 home runs, and 115 RBI. Cabrera’s 55 home runs tied the single-season record set by Japanese Baseball Hall of Famer Sadaharu Oh (1964) and Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes (2001).
Cabrera’s historical 2002 season caused some controversy. Oh, or at least his coaching staff, had allegedly been agitated when foreigners Randy Bass (1985), Rhodes (2001), and Cabrera (2002) all came close to breaking his record. In each instance, Oh, as the opposing team’s Manager, would allegedly not let his teams pitch to Bass, Rhodes, and Cabrera. There is some debate as to whether he ordered this to happen or simply tolerated it. Either way, these sluggers were all intentionally walked four times per game against Oh’s teams as the record became imminently threatened in the last games of the season. Bass finished his season one home run short of the record, while Rhodes and Cabrera tied it. Cabrera called out Oh’s unsportsmanlike conduct to the Japanese media, which supported Cabrera.
The controversy not-withstanding, Cabrera would win the Pacific League Most Valuable Player award. He followed that up with another impressive season in 2003, as he batted .324 with 50 home runs and 112 RBI.
In 2004, injuries shortened Cabrera’s season to just 64 games (he still hit 25 home runs and 62 RBI). However, in the postseason, Cabrera would become a Japan Series hero. In Game 3, Cabrera hit a two-run home run and then a tie-breaking grand slam clear out of the Seibu Dome to help the Lions win 10-8. He would follow up those heroics four games later. In Game 7, Cabrera’s hit a two-run home run that helped lead the Seibu Lions to a 7-2 victory over the Chunichi Dragons. It was the Lions’ first Japan Series title since their dynastic run through the 1980s and early 90s.
Unfortunately, in 2007 Cabrera would be caught up in controversy when The Mitchell Report was released on December 13. George J. Mitchell, a former U.S. Senator from Maine, undertook a 20-month investigation into the usage of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) by Major League Baseball players. He completed a 409-page report that covered the history of the use of illegal performance-enhancing substances and the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the MLB Joint Drug Prevention Program. Mitchell’s report commented on the handling of past drug use in MLB and recommended future prevention practices.
The Mitchell Report also named 89 MLB players who allegedly used steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs, including Alex Cabrera. It noted that in September 2000, when Cabrera was playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks, team officials found a package containing a vial with the anabolic steroid Winstrol and several hundred over-the-counter diet pills. Cabrera denied ever using steroids and also denied knowing why the package was addressed to him. In his 12 years in NPB, Cabrera never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Though he never tested positive for steroids, the Mitchell Report’s findings impacted Cabrera’s career in Japan. Despite his seven successful seasons for the Lions, during which he compiled a .308 batting average with 246 home runs and 605 RBI over 708 games, Cabrera left the Lions and signed a one-year contract with the Orix Buffaloes in January 2008. The local media reported that Cabrera’s contract was contingent upon him passing a drug test.
Cabrera obtained free agency rights after eight years in the NPB and was able to have his “foreign player” designation removed after the 2009 season. He was just the fourth non-Japanese player in history to obtain this classification from the league. In his three seasons with the Buffaloes, Cabrera tallied 73 home runs and 225 RBIs. In 2011, he played with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and finished his NPB career with them the next season in 2012.
Though he was done in Japan, Cabrera ended his baseball career in style. Cabrera played four seasons of winter ball in his native Venezuela, and in the 2013-2014 season broke the 34-year-old home run record set by former MLB All-Star catcher Baudillo “Bo” Diaz with 21 home runs. Cabrera became the only player in the world to set two single-season home run records in two different countries.
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