OSAKA – The world of Japanese sports has expressed surprise and disappointment at this week’s arrest of former baseball star slugger Kazuhiro Kiyohara for alleged drug use.
Former teammates from his turn at the Seibu Lions and Yomiuri Giants, coaches, and local fans from his high school, where he played for baseball powerhouse PL Gakuen in Osaka, were among those to comment on reports of Kiyohara’s arrest Tuesday night on suspicion of possessing a stimulant.
Above all else, disappointment was the one word that appeared to resonate with them all. It is, after all, still a rare event in Japan for a high-profile athlete to be linked to drugs, such is the expectation — and norm — for stars of that caliber to be clean, safe role models.
Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday that he was disappointed. “Many young people were so excited to see his great play at Koshien Stadium. He was a hero for children, and I am disappointed that he was arrested,” Abe said during a Diet debate.
Former Yomiuri Giants pitcher Masumi Kuwata, who shared the spotlight with Kiyohara, 48, at PL Gakuen in the National High School Baseball Championship at Koshien Stadium, said “if the media reports are as they say, as a baseball player and as someone who was his teammate, it is extremely disappointing.”
“One prerequisite of being a sportsman is maintaining an existence that is the farthest removed from that of violence and drugs. In reality, he is gentle and caring. I’m disappointed his best qualities do not come to the fore,” Kuwata said.
He also held out hope that Kiyohara will turn his life around after his arrest for drug possession.
“There are no pinch hitters or relievers in life. You have to do it all yourself,” Kuwata, now a media analyst, said Thursday. “For his life, I hope he hits a come-from-behind grand slam with a nice trajectory.”
Kiyohara’s former coach at PL Gakuen Junji Nakamura said, “I am really stunned at what has happened. I can only say I am disappointed.”
Nakamura said he had talked with Kiyohara last July about a magazine project, but felt there had been nothing out of the ordinary.
“There wasn’t really anything unusual about him, he was just upbeat and talking about the past.”
Former Giants teammate and New York Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui, who once batted third in front of Kiyohara in the cleanup spot, said, “I’ve found out about it on the news. All I can say is that I am surprised.”
New Giants manager Yoshinobu Takahashi, who also used to bat at the heart of the Giants order alongside Kiyohara, said, “I don’t know the details but I’m surprised. It’s sad and disappointing.”
Former Seattle Mariners closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, a close associate of Kiyohara as they were in the same age group, said, “He was saying ‘I’m not (on drugs)’ two years ago when we dined together. It’s disappointing. I am sad and feel as if I was betrayed.”
All-time home run king and SoftBank Hawks Chairman Sadaharu Oh was also left speechless. “I am simply disappointed. Really, a star of that caliber,” said Oh.
Meanwhile, former Giants teammate and Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo’s dejection could be read in his facial expression.
Former Boston Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, who faced Kiyohara in the Japan Series while playing for the Seibu Lions, said, “We’ve been playing baseball looking up to Kiyohara-san. I don’t know how to express my feelings now.”
Former Giants player Kiyoshi Nakahata, who managed the DeNA BayStars for the last four years, said, “There’s some part in him that makes me feel ‘oh I knew it’. It just tells you that you can’t be a baseball-only man.”
Lions manager Norio Tanabe, who played at Seibu alongside Kiyohara, said, “He is someone I played together with, so this is downright disappointing. I have many memories, but I am at a loss for words.”
Nippon Professional Baseball Commissioner Katsuhiko Kumazaki rued the alleged perpetration by the former icon as yet another scandal to hit Japanese baseball, following the indefinite disqualification of three Giants pitchers last November for illegally betting on baseball games.
“Baseball is one of the sports to which many youngsters aspire. They (players) have to remain role models even after their playing careers,” said Kumazaki, who ordered the NPB to warn players at each team’s camp about drug use during its baseball-betting preventive workshops.
The NPB holds workshops for new players each year on drug issues.
A throng of reporters gathered early Wednesday morning in front of Kiyohara’s parents’ home in Kishiwada, Osaka Prefecture, but the lights were off inside the building and there was no apparent activity.
Hanging on a wall outside the building was a poster for recruiting players for a little league baseball team to which Kiyohara once belonged.
“He came to the Kishiwada Danjiri Festival several years ago, and he was very popular among the locals. This is so disappointing,” said a 62-year-old housewife, who said she knew Kiyohara during his time in junior high school and rooted for him at Koshien.
Kiyohara, who ranks fifth in Japanese baseball with 525 home runs, attained the 2,000-hit milestone in 2004. He was honored with a citizenship award for that achievement.
“At that time he offered dreams and hope. This is extremely regrettable during these days when illegal drugs have become such a social problem,” said an official at Kishiwada.
A weekly magazine reported in 2014 that Kiyohara had been using drugs, but he denied the allegation in a TV program.
Kiyohara, who has appeared as a guest on numerous TV variety programs since his retirement in 2008, is only one of the celebrities who have ran afoul of the law due to drugs in what many believe is just the tip of the iceberg.