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Game takes backseat as Giants, Carp pay their respects to Kimura

by Jason Coskrey

Sometimes a baseball game can be about more than strikeouts and home runs. About more than wins and losses.

Peel back the game’s layers, way back behind the sacrifice bunts, past the defensive shifts and 3-2 counts, and a baseball game can be something remarkably simple yet still powerful.

Like a lasting goodbye to an old friend.

Saturday night at Tokyo Dome, where the Yomiuri Giants and Hiroshima Carp gave the late Takuya Kimura a rousing sendoff, was one of those times.

“He was a role model,” Giants slugger Alex Ramirez said. “If you wanted somebody, a captain or somebody, who could be there and help, not only on the field but also off the field, I think Kimutaku was one of those kind of people.”

Kimura began his playing career with the Nippon Ham Fighters, but made his biggest impact on the diamond as a member of the Carp and later the Giants.

He retired in 2009 after winning the Japan Series with the Giants, and was serving as Yomiuri’s hitting coach this year, when he collapsed on the field prior to a game against the Carp on April 2.

Kimura died from a brain hemorrhage on April 7, leaving behind a host of grieving former teammates.

For them, Saturday was a chance to honor his memory. An opportunity to do right by a trusted friend who touched their lives in a positive way.

Because while fans adored the scrappy utility player, who played every position except pitcher at least once during a 19-year career, the Giants and Carp knew Takuya Kimura the man.

“He was my teammate for three years,” said Yoshitomo Tani, the hero of Saturday’s game after his come-from-behind, pinch-hit, grand slam in the eighth inning of the Giants’ 7-4 win. “Even in our private time, we were always together. Those are good memories for me.”

So there was no better way for the teams to honor his memory — to show the Kimura family members in attendance how much he meant to them — than by dedicating the night in his honor.

Playing the game that brought them all together in the first place.

“She said ‘thank you’ to me,” Tani said of his brief exchange with Kimura’s wife following the game. “Takuya and I were good friends. He would’ve told me ‘good job’ today.”

Sunny skies greeted the teams on that cool Saturday morning, when they gathered in black suits to attend a memorial service for Kimura.

Giants manager Tatsunori Hara read a message to his former player, ending with a final, poignant, ‘arigato,’ while fighting back tears.

A bit of normalcy returned in the afternoon, as both teams went through batting practice in preparation for their game.

The regularity of pre-game warm-ups gave way to a fresh wave of emotion shortly before the contest.

It was then the Tokyo Dome scoreboard lit up with a video montage of Kimura’s career — sayonara hits, great defensive plays and his unforgettable half-inning turn as the Giants’ catcher — as the teams and fans looked on.

The most touching moment of the night came during the ceremonial first pitch.

Koki Kimura, the former player’s 10-year-old son, tugged at the heartstrings of the 46,673 fans in attendance as he strode to the mound, dressed in a miniature version of his father’s uniform, to do the honors.

With the Yomiuri infielders lined up behind him, Koki Kimura’s pitch made it to catcher Shinnosuke Abe on the fly, drawing a standing ovation from the sellout crowd.

“I feel for his family,” Ramirez said. “They will always be in our prayers. Especially those little kids. They need their father. So they need that support from us and the fans.”

With an emotional night behind them, the Giants want to continue to honor the memory of their fallen friend.

“We must win the championship for Takuya,” said Tani, trying in vain to fight back tears.

Ramirez echoed that sentiment.

“We play for that,” Ramirez said. “We’re not going to stop until we make that happen. Becoming the No. 1 in Japan, of course that’s the number one thing. But to do it for Taku, that will be the number one goal for this year.”