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Writer takes memorable trip to Victor Starfin Stadium in Asahikawa

by Wayne Graczyk

ASAHIKAWA, Hokkaido — Last week I had the pleasure of attending a regular-season baseball game in the central Hokkaido city of Asahikawa, as the Yomiuri Giants played the Chunichi Dragons at the 25,000-seat Victor Starfin Stadium. It was the first appearance by the Giants in 16 years at the ballpark named for one of the most colorful characters in Japanese baseball history.

Victor Starfin (sometimes spelled Starffin) was an ethnic Russian whose parents came to Japan after the Russian Revolution, settling in the town where the young Victor would attend Asahikawa High School and become a star pitcher on the baseball team.

He went on to achieve stardom as a professional, playing for the Tokyo Giants in the 1930s and early ’40s during the beginning days of pro ball in Japan, before the outbreak of World War II disrupted the game’s schedule and seasons. He resumed playing post-war in 1946 at the age of 30 with the Shochiku Robins and wrapped up his career with the Takahashi Unions in 1955.

A hulk of a man at 193 cm tall and weighing 104 kg, Starfin had several nicknames. One was the “Blue-eyed Japanese,” because he took the name Hiroshi Suda during the war years when foreign words, including baseball terms such as “strike,” “ball,” “safe” and “out,” were banned from the Japanese lexicon.

Another was “Victory” Starfin, as he was one of the winningest pitchers in Japanese baseball annals, compiling a career mark of 303-176, including a Japan pro record 42 wins in 1939 when he was just 23 years old. He also won 38 in 1940. Starfin is a member of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, having been inducted posthumously in 1960.

Born in the Ural Mountains of Russia on May 1, 1916, Starfin died on Jan. 12, 1957, at the age of 40 when the car he was driving was hit by a train. But his memory survives at the stadium, built in 1983, in Asahikawa.

A bronze statue of Victor in a pitching pose stands before the entrance to the ballpark, and there is a mini-museum in the stadium foyer.

At the July 15 game in Asahikawa, Starfin’s daughter, Natasha, threw the ceremonial first pitch, wearing a replica of her dad’s Giants jersey bearing his No. 17 under her name as N. Starffin, with the double-f spelling.

Following her appearance on the mound, Natasha was cornered by Japanese reporters for an impromptu press conference in front of her father’s memorabilia. Now 56, she was 5 when he was killed.

Speaking in Japanese, she said, “I was so small when my father died, so whenever I see a baseball game, I think of him. I will always remember him wearing a Kyojin (Giants) uniform, and I am so thankful the city of Asahikawa chose to honor him by naming the ballpark Starfin Stadium.”

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Finally this week, I report the sad news that one of the most enthusiastic baseball fans among foreigners living in Japan, John Terry, died of heart failure in Nara on July 2. He was 77.

A college professor who often spent weekends playing baseball and softball, Terry began writing letters to this column back in the 1970s and continued sending mail until a few weeks ago, expressing his views about the way the game is played in this country.

He would never fail to include his own batting average, the number of home runs he hit and stories of his mound achievements on the sandlots, which often included shutouts and even an occasional no-hitter.

John was also an occasional fill-in color commentator on televised games of the Hankyu Braves, Hanshin Tigers and Chunichi Dragons, joining Marty Kuehnert on the bilingual telecasts when the English play-by-play era was in its heyday during the 1980s.

Through his own publishing company, Dawn Press, Terry produced the book “Coping With Clouters, Culture and Crisis,” a recap of the 1960-66 Japan career of Nankai Hawks star American pitcher Joe Stanka, written by Stanka’s wife, Jean.

John will be missed and, as the punch line to a familiar joke has it, if there is baseball in heaven, he’s probably pitching on Tuesday.