On Friday night in Baltimore, at the Tops in Sports Baseball Banquet, the honored guest was from Japan.

First, the Japanese anthem was played, then "The Star-Spangled Banner." When the words, "Oh, say can you see," were sung, hundreds of people in the crowd pretended they were at a Baltimore Orioles game and chanted "O."

A slight smile played on the face of the guest, a man whose 868 home runs as a pro are more than anyone else. Perhaps Sadaharu Oh thought that "O" was "Oh."

It's American baseball's great loss that Oh, who's making his seventh trip to the United States, doesn't speak English.

If he could tell us eloquently how he has spent 20 years incorporating the philosophy of Zen, the martial art of Aikido, the dance of Kabuki and the swordsmanship of Suburi into a radical theory of how to hit a baseball, we would sit transfixed with delight.

The man who had "the flamingo stance" -- standing on one foot like an exaggerated parody of Mel Ott while he waited for the pitch -- could explain how the Zen view ("become void of desire") helped him gain a sense of oneness with the pitcher and thus achieve almost total relaxation at the plate.

The left-handed slugger who won 13 straight home run titles (frequently hitting 50 homers in a 130-game season) could elaborate on how the student of Aikido can discover the eerie powers of ki, which, almost in a day, transformed Oh from a young dud into a legend.

To some, this projection of spirit-energy that supposedly emanates from just below the navel might sound like a lotta sushi. But before Oh found his hitting "ki," his career was a flop. Afterward, he had what Jim Palmer called "a perfect swing," and had such power Frank Robinson guessed he might have hit 600 homers in the majors.

This man of almost kingly bearing and dignity could explain to us how his work on the brutal martial-arts dojo floor and his study of the formal Noh drama as well as the Kabuki allowed him to find an ideal kind of balance in both stance and state of mind.

Like scores of major leaguers who have seen Oh and pronounced him a likely Hall of Famer had he played in the United States, we could scratch our heads and wonder how much wisdom and how much Oriental smoke is contained in his endless training with ancient swords.

After all, how many baseball batters pattern their wrist-snap after the way a medieval warrior would have cut a man in half with a single blow? Oh's model is not Babe Ruth but rather Musashi, the greatest of all Samurai, who finally overcame the chaos in his own heart by disciplined training and simple living.

Obviously, though Oh cannot speak English, his baseball ideas have finally been knocked over the language barrier and landed on our side of the fence.

In fact, Oh's ideas might take root here, thanks to an enchanting and tantalizing new book called, "Sadaharu Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball."

Thanks to this 270-page combination of autobiography and meditation on the game, Oh may soon become the same sort of technical guru and spiritual master here that he is in the East.

It pains the 44-year-old Oh that American baseball, which he clearly sees as the best in the world, has no place as yet for the fruits of his lifetime of study.

"There is still a gap between our baseball and yours," said the tuxedoed Oh through a translator on Friday. "It has narrowed, but the last little part is the hardest to bridge. To get almost as good is not so hard. To be as good is very hard.

"We have learned a great deal from your strategies. But we have not yet been able to export our theories to the United States."

If big leaguers are smart, they'll run to the book store and put Oh's tome on their shelves right next to Ted Williams' "The Science of Hitting," and Charlie Lau's "The Art of Hitting .300." At the moment, these are the three books on hitting a baseball that matter most.

Of course, if one human tried to incorporate the notions of those three men, he'd probably hit .000. Williams wants you to uppercut and hit with your hips. Lau wants you to swing level and strike off a firm front side, like a golfer. And Oh -- oh, boy -- he wants you to do stuff you've never even begun to hear about before.

Oh's collaboration with David Falkner is part autobiography: the tale of a sickly half-Chinese child who became Japan's most famous athlete, yet still refuses his country's citizenship because of the racial discrimination he suffered, as well as the imprisonment and torture his Chinese father endured.

However, to a far greater extent, this book is the philosophic tale of how a fairly average man found his way. As Falkner said Friday night, "I think it is almost a mystery to Oh that he became a wider and different person with age. What he cared about was hitting a baseball better. Yet, thanks to his teacher Arakawa, that desire took him into philosophy, religion, dance, the martial arts. Baseball became a whole spiritual discipline for him."

Will we ever reach the day when a Yankees batting coach says, as Oh does, that the batter should "receive the ball, rather than hit it, trying, in his mind's eye, to get the ball to stay on the bat for 12 inches of arc"?

To some extent, Oh's style will probably always be a mystery. Few men will ever know their First Mind (a Zen term for the first and strongest longing a person has for a life path) as well as Oh and follow it as totally.

After his first season as a manager -- leading his Tokyo Yomiuri Giants to a poor third-place finish this year that shocked Japan -- Oh already is learning how difficult it is to teach techniques that have their root in the mind and soul as much as in the muscles.

The Zen Way of Baseball that Oh found is a narrow path. Few future players can be expected to pass that way. However, thanks to Oh and Falkner's work, all fans can now gain a glimmer of insight into a life that, Falkner claims, "is as characteristically Japanese as Babe Ruth's was American."