Curaçaoan and former Seattle Mariner and Cincinnati Red, current Yakult Swallow, Wladimir ‘Coco’ Balentien (28) is the reigning ‘Home Run King’ of Japanese professional baseball having tied the Japanese baseball’s season home run record of 55 (set by Sadaharu Oh in 1964 and matched by ex-major leaguers Tuffy Rhodes in 2001 and Alex Cabrera in 2002) on Tuesday, September 10, 2013.
Balentien’s fans all over the world call him “Coco”, the nickname he got as a child from a cousin who once teased him about wearing a baseball cap that made his head resemble a coconut. He even has his own ‘Coco’ Meter (automated home run counter) on the Yakult Swallows’ website: www.yakult-swallows.co.jp/players/stats/2013balentien.
Like most from Curaçao, Coco is fluent in four languages: Papiamentu (at home), Dutch (in school), plus English and Spanish. But the transition from MLB to Nippon Professional Baseball in 2011 didn’t come easy.
For starters, Japan’s raw food diet befuddles him, so he tends to stick to his trusted McDonald’s. And then there’s the obvious language barrier. When Coco first reached Tokyo, he relied on some English-speaking players, including Yakult closer and former Diamondbacks farmhand Tony Barnette, to get around.
But sometimes the language and cultural barriers work in his favor. “You know, [in the US] the manager can go and argue. In Japan nobody can say anything. The umpire rules the game,” he said. “But they don’t understand me. So when I get a bad call, I can say something.” In those situations, he always falls back on Papiamentu. “The other (languages), sometimes, they understand you and they throw you out of the game,” he said.
One of Coco’s Japanese-born teammates, catcher Ryoji Aikawa, adopted him in his first year in Japan even though neither could speak to the other directly. Coco has since picked up a few Japanese words, and even though English would be the ideal common language for them, Aikawa attempts a few awkward words in Papiamentu. “Even if he doesn’t pronounce them right, he tries, and it makes me feel like he really wants to have a relationship,” Balentien said.
Though Coco recently signed a contract extension with the Swallows worth $7.5 million through 2016, he still dreams of one day returning to the big leagues.
[Adapted from Mr. World Baseball Classic]