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Recalling fond memories of Killebrew

by Wayne Graczyk

It is always sad to hear about the death of a ballplayer who, as a youth, you admired.

Sports reports on May 15 indicated Harmon Killebrew had decided to end his fight against esophageal cancer and was entering hospice care. The end was near, but it came really quick when the former Minnesota Twins slugger and Hall of Famer died two days later at age 74.

I can recall when the Idaho native broke in as a teenaged third baseman with the old Washington Senators in 1955 and some of the tape-measure home runs he hit at ancient Griffith Stadium in the late 1950s. Those were the days long before steroids when fencebusters such as Killebrew, as one radio announcer put it, made their bodies bigger with cheeseburgers and milk shakes.

Killebrew was part of a power-packed Senators lineup of youngsters and veterans that included Roy Sievers, Jim Lemon and Bob Allison.

When the Senators moved to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in 1961 (50 years ago — can it be?) and became the Twins, he was coming into his prime and became one of the most popular players at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. In 1965, Minnesota would win the American League pennant in a straight, division-less 10-team American League, with Killebrew, Tony Oliva and MVP Zoilo Versalles as the top stars.

The obituaries circulating this past week all referred to Killebrew as a gentleman, and that he was. I never had the pleasure of meeting him but wish I had. They don’t make them like this anymore.

Meanwhile, a memorial service for the late Japanese baseball Hall of Famer Wally Yonamine has been re-scheduled for later this week. The former Yomiuri Giants great, Central League MVP and Chunichi Dragons manager died Feb. 28 in Hawaii, and the service originally set to take place on March 22 was postponed in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku.

The tribute to Wally will now be held on May 27, at the Franciscan Chapel Center in Roppongi, Tokyo, beginning at 1:30 p.m.

Japan’s 2011 pro baseball season continues to be affected by the events of March 11 with another scheduling change necessitated by stadium damage. The Yomiuri Giants were to have played a traveling series against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows at three ballparks late next month: June 28 at Koriyama, the 29th at Utsunomiya and the 30th at Tokyo Dome.

However, structural damage from that mega-earthquake at Kiyohara Stadium in Utsunomiya will prevent a game from being played at that Tochigi Prefecture site. Instead, the first two games of the series will take place at Kaiseizan Stadium in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture.

Diamond Dust: Check out Ryan Vogelsong, the former Hanshin Tigers (2007-08) and Orix Buffaloes (2009) right-hander now with the San Francisco Giants. He did not make the roster of the defending World Series champion club out of spring camp, but he’s making it now in a big way.

Vogelsong began the season at Triple-A Fresno but, after a 2-0 start with a 1.59 ERA, he got the call back to the Golden Gate. At last look, he is 3-0 with a 2.36 ERA in six games. His performances include a rain-shortened, six-inning shutout against the division rival Colorado Rockies.

Ex-Yomiuri Giants closer Marc Kroon continues to toil with the Fresno club. He’s got nine saves with a 1-2 record and a 3.45 ERA in 16 Pacific Coast League games. Teammate Edgar Gonzalez, also with the Tokyo Giants in 2010, is batting .266 with two home runs and 16 RBIs in 34 games with Fresno.

Another former Hanshin pitcher, the Tigers one-time ace left-hander Kei Igawa, continues to struggle in the minor leagues during this, his fifth season, playing in the U.S. Posted by Hanshin following the 2006 season, Igawa was signed to a five-year, $20 million contract by the New York Yankees but has wallowed in Triple A at Scranton, Pennsylvania, for four years, and now he’s in Double-A.

Igawa is throwing for the Trenton Thunder of the Double-A Eastern League, another Yankees affiliate. This season, he’s 2-1 with a 2.96 ERA.

Current Yomiuri Giants reliever Jonathan Albaladejo was Igawa’s teammate in Scranton and became good friends with him. “I called him when I signed with Tokyo,” said Albaladejo. “Through his interpreter, I told him to come back to Japan and let’s pitch together with the Giants.”

Some who have talked to Igawa, however, say he is enjoying his life in North America — even while playing two levels below the majors. Something will have to give after this season, though, when that original Yankees contract expires.

Finally this week, does anyone out there know or recall a Charlie Brown who supposedly played professional baseball in the Japanese leagues?

A message from Charles Kusuda says Charlie Brown is his uncle and he used to play pro ball in Japan. He is supposedly living in Sendai, and Kusuda has not heard from him since the earthquake and tsunami struck.

Since 1950, six guys named Brown have played in the Central or Pacific Leagues: Todd. Mike, Marty, Roosevelt, Jamie and Dee. No Charlie. If anyone remembers a Charlie Brown playing pro ball here, please let us know.

There will be no “Baseball Bullet-In” next week as we take a break for the fifth Sunday of the month.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com

This column is sponsored by Bodyplus Group & Warner Entertainment Japan Inc.