|

Memories flow as era ends with closure of Hiroshima Shimin Kyujo

by Wayne Graczyk

Kind of a sad week in baseball, wasn’t it?

In New York, they played the last game at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 21, maybe the last one at Shea Stadium will be played on Sunday, and Sadaharu Oh announced his retirement on Sept. 23, after 14 years managing the Fukuoka Daiei/Softbank Hawks and 50 years in professional ball in Japan.

The final regular-season game at Hiroshima Civic Stadium, known locally as Shimin Kyujo, was also to be played on Sunday, the 28th, with the Hiroshima Carp hosting the Yakult Swallows.

That will end more than 50 years of pro baseball history at the cozy ballpark built as part of the reconstruction of the city after its devastation at the end of World War II.

Located in the center of town in front of a streetcar stop, Shimin Kyujo is adjacent to the main tourist area and historic landmarks.

Picture postcards of Peace Park, the preserved Atomic Bomb Dome and Hiroshima Castle invariably include the stadium light towers visible in the background.

I saw my first game at Shimin Kyujo in September of 1970, with the Carp winning over the Taiyo Whales, and I bid farewell to the place 2 1/2 weeks ago on Sept. 10, when Hiroshima defeated the Yokohama BayStars.

Through the years, Hiroshima Civic Stadium has seen its share of great games, moments and players.

The Carp won their first Central League pennant in 1975 and took home Japan Series victories in 1979, 1980 and 1984.

Hiroshima was CL champion again in 1986 and 1991.

Ironically, one of the most memorable scenes at Shimin Kyujo came in 1976 when the Yomiuri Giants, managed by Shigeo Nagashima, clinched the CL pennant after having ended up in last place in 1975. The Giants were returning the favor to the Carp who, having finished last in 1974, secured the 1975 flag at Yomiuri’s home Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo.

Among my favorite players, Japanese and foreigners, who called Hiroshima Civic Stadium home are the following:

• Koji Yamamoto (1969-86), that Joe DiMaggio-type graceful center fielder and slugger, known as “Mr. Red Helmet” and inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame this summer. His uniform No. 8 is retired, and he served two terms as Carp manager, 1989-93 and 2001-05.

• Sachio Kinugasa (1965-87), that ironman third baseman who broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game playing streak record and ended his career with 2,215 straight games played. Now a radio and TV commentator with Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), Kinugasa wore No. 3 as a player, and that numeral is also retired.

• Gail Hopkins (1975-76), that sweet-swinging left-handed hitting first baseman who formed the cleanup trio with Kinugasa and Yamamoto on the Carp’s first pennant-winning team in 1975.

• Richie Scheinblum (1975-76), that flamboyant right fielder who went by the registered nickname of “Shane” and played a big part in Hiroshima’s Central League championship success in ’75.

• Jim Lyttle (1977-82), that mustachioed, tobacco-chewing Floridian and former New York Yankees player who was a key member of Hiroshima’s 1979 and 1980 Japan Series-winning teams.

• Adrian “Smoky” Garrett (1977-79), that brother of Wayne who took a break from his regular left field position to try (unsuccessfully) his hand at catching Japanese pitchers in 1978, the year he hit 40 home runs.

• Tim Ireland (1983-84), that scrappy second baseman and master of the hidden ball trick who loved the skin infield at Shimin Kyujo because he had more dirt to kick on the shoes of umpires when he felt they made a bad call.

Two other Americans who more recently played for the Carp and were in Japan this month offered their nostalgic feelings about playing in Shimin Kyujo.

Louie Lopez, currently a “reverse scout” covering North America for the Rakuten Eagles, played first base for Hiroshima, 1996-97 and 2000-02, and led the Central League in RBIs his first two seasons.

Lopez commented about his old home ballpark, saying, “The stadium had a lot of character, located right in the middle of the city and across the street from the Peace Park. It was an old stadium, but it worked. I had fun playing there.”

Despite the nostalgia and sadness of seeing the team leave Shimin Kyujo, he also said, “The fans in Hiroshima deserve a new stadium.”

Another ex-Carp player (1998-2000), former pitcher and now scout for the Cleveland Indians, Nate Minchey, had this to say:

“I am going to miss Shimin Kyujo where I had my first memories of Japanese baseball. It was the first park I saw after arriving in Japan and the site of my Japanese debut.

“It was a throwback ballpark of another era; a blue-collar man’s ballpark. The only other park I know (in Japan) with as much nostalgia would be Koshien Stadium. Shimin Kyujo, with its interesting surfaces, kept the infielders on their toes and the outfielders focused.

“When you left Shimin Kyujo, you knew you had played a game with that rich black soil all over you. I will miss that great ballpark, but there is a time for everything, and it’s time for a new park in Hiroshima.”

Finally, current Carp manager Marty Brown, a Hiroshima player from 1992 to 1994 and field boss since 2006, said he is looking forward to the new stadium, but Shimin Kyujo will always have a place in his heart.

“There is so much history here,” Brown said, “It is a real personable park where the fans seem as if they are right next to you. Day games were special, and I don’t think the atmosphere can be matched anywhere. It will be missed.”

Hiroshima’s new stadium, located alongside the Japan Railways Shinkansen bullet train tracks near the city’s main train station, is scheduled to open as the home of the Carp next April.

* * * * *

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com