Three Japanese players joined the Meikyukai (Golden Players Club) during the 2012 season by reaching the career 2,000-hit mark. Tokyo Yakult Swallows infielder Shinya Miyamoto, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters veteran Atsunori Inaba and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks retiring slugger Hiroki Kokubo are the newest GPC members.
For Miyamoto, getting to the milestone was especially emotional. He knocked out that 2,000th hit at Jingu Stadium during Golden Week on May 4 with the memory of a dear friend and father figure on his mind. As he approached the mark, Miyamoto said he would be dedicating the hit to Maruto Higuchi, who died in January 2011.
Higuchi was the head of Nihon Sogyo, a company responsible for maintaining security for, among other facilities, Jingu Stadium, Sendai’s Kleenex Stadium Miyagi, Shin-Yokohama Stadium and Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. After joining the Swallows in 1995, Miyamoto became close to Higuchi, 20 years his senior, and eventually Higuchi served as the nakodo (go-between) at Miyamoto’s wedding.
Tragically, Higuchi died after a freak mishap at an onsen in Odawara when his artery was severed by broken glass. He was 61 and, after hearing the news, Miyamoto was shocked to learn his close friend was gone.
“He died in an accident. He was not sick, and when I heard someone named Higuchi had died, I wanted to know which Higuchi it was. When I found out it was him, I went into a panic. He was so much more than a friend; more like a mentor or a father to me. He was always protecting me. I actually met him while I was a sophomore in college,” said Miyamoto, a graduate of Doshisha University in Kansai.
“I was 20, so 22 years ago. My team had won an All-Japan university tournament, and we went on an excursion to Taiwan. He was a chaperone, and I really got to know him well a year before I entered pro baseball.”
Asked what made him dedicate the 2,000th career hit to Higuchi, Miyamoto said, “I never believed I would have a chance to reach that total before ending my career, but he was always encouraging me, saying ‘Gambare, gambare. You can do it.’ When he died, I remembered that and thought it would be special if I could achieve that goal in his memory.
“Recalling his words, I became more determined to get that 2,000th hit as soon as I could.”
He made it 16 months after Higuchi died. Miyamoto has the 2,000th hit ball but made it a point to remember Higuchi by presenting the bat he used to Higuchi’s widow, Yuki. Just a few days after joining the Meikyukai, Miyamoto drove to the Higuchi home to deliver the bat. At first, however, the family was reluctant to receive the cherished memento.
Yuki Higuchi told the player he should keep it himself.
“She wasn’t going to take it,” said Miyamoto. “But I insisted, telling her, if her husband were still alive, I would have given the bat to him, and finally she accepted it and thanked me sincerely. That made me feel really good.”
The Baseball Bullet-In was turned onto this story by Jim Moynihan, an American businessman, life-long baseball fan and long-time resident of Japan who had become friends with Higuchi a quarter of a century ago and later Miyamoto.
During his college years at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, Moynihan began studying Japanese and was a foreign exchange student from UND at Sophia University during his junior year. He attended his first Japanese professional baseball game at Jingu Stadium in 1972, seeing the Yakult Atoms play the Taiyo Whales.
He was with the FBI stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo in 1987 when he was approached by Higuchi for advice on a security matter at Jingu Stadium. In 1988, Moynihan became acquainted with Doug DeCinces, an American player with the Swallows who had previously played in the major leagues with the Baltimore Orioles but played Triple-A ball in Rochester, New York, coincidentally Moynihan’s hometown.
Because of Higuchi and DeCinces, Moynihan often attended Yakult games at Jingu Stadium and became a Swallows fan. After Miyamoto joined the team in 1995, Moynihan, Higuchi, Miyamoto and their families often went to dinner together, and the three men sometimes played golf.
In fact, Higuchi ran his own golf tournament for many years, and the field of players included Moynihan, Miyamoto and former Yomiuri Giants and New York Yankees great Hideki Matsui.
Higuchi donated proceeds from the tournament to various charities.
“He had a huge heart,” said Moynihan. “I remember he sent money to the family of an FBI agent killed in the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, for his children’s education.”
Moynihan also recalled a time in 1989 when Higuchi took care of him and visiting U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh.
“In my role with the FBI, I was the control officer for the visit,” Moynihan said. “Thornburgh was from Pittsburgh and a big sports fan, particularly of the Pirates. I made arrangements with Higuchi-san and took Thornburgh to Jingu to see the Swallows play, with a red carpet entry into Jingu and seats in the emperor’s box behind home plate.”
In summing up the character of Higuchi, Moynihan said, “He was a true gentleman and my best Japanese friend, so his death was a shock to me as well. Everything Miyamoto said about him is so true.”
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com