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Antics of ‘Animal’ hard to forget more than 25 years later

by Wayne Graczyk

He wasn’t the best foreigner to ever play in Japanese baseball, but Brad “The Animal” Lesley was surely one of the most colorful and unforgettable characters to ever put on the uniform of a Central or Pacific League team.

The news of his death at age 54 on April 28 in California has brought back memories of his two-year career as a relief pitcher with the Hankyu Braves in 1986-87.

He was flamboyant and displayed a fiery personality on the field but, away from the ballpark, he was polite, soft-spoken and as “normal” as anyone can be.

He brought the “Animal” identity with him from his time pitching in the U.S. for the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers, and the Hankyu ballclub, citing his “wild” appearance with long hair and a scraggly beard, registered him by his nickname.

Many Japanese fans probably did not even know his real name or how to spell it, because they never saw it except in the Japanese katakana style of writing.

I can recall one reader in Kobe sending me a letter in which he wrote, “My favorite player is Bladrey J. Rassley.”

Animal had many habits that entertained fans in Japan and media members, and I can recall three of them.

On occasion when he would jam a hitter such that a bat would be broken in half, Lesley would pick up the bat barrel and kiss it before tossing it aside.

After a strikeout, he would imitate a victorious sumo wrestler by going into a crouch and making the hand strokes as if receiving a cash prize.

He also did some wrestling himself. After running in the outfield prior to a game, he would return to the clubhouse but, on his way when he passed a group of unsuspecting Japanese sportswriters milling around in front of the Hankyu dugout, he would suddenly and playfully grab one of them, get the guy in a headlock and pull him to the ground as the others would laugh and nearby cameramen sprang into action to record the scene on film.

As the popularity of the Animal persona started to grow, the Braves began staging some promotions, including a contest whereby youngsters put on fake beards and long-haired wigs in an Animal impersonation competition.

He later did voiceovers for Japanese TV commercials, including a memorable one for Nisshin Cup Noodle and, after his time ended as an active player, he began a second career as an actor.

In the 1992 movie, “Mr. Baseball,” Lesley performed a double role, portraying the character of Niven and serving as an advisor to the crew, passing along knowledge gained from his experience playing ball in Japan.

Leon Lee, a former Lotte Orions, Yokohama Taiyo Whales and Yakult Swallows first baseman, also appeared in “Mr. Baseball” and sent the following comments in an email from California:

“I was shocked and saddened to hear about Animal’s passing. He was a real close friend. I saw him last year in Los Angeles and had a great talk with him at the ballpark in Compton. I didn’t realize it would be the last time I would see him.

“He was a great guy with tons of energy and talent. Outside he acted rough and tough, but inside he was one of the most generous guys you could ever meet. I’ll miss him a lot. He was too young.”

In the 1980s, Japanese teams were only allowed to have two foreign players, and Animal’s U.S. teammate was slugging first baseman Greg “Boomer” Wells. Though Wells had been a Pacific League batting Triple Crown winner (1984), Lesley got as much or more attention and publicity because of his antics.

Wells did not seem to mind, though, and wrote last week in an email from Georgia about his days with Animal and interpreter Chico Barbon, and reaction to the death of his buddy.

“Animal, or ‘Pepe,’ as Chico and I called him, was a great teammate and an even better friend. This is a very sad day for me; a very sad day. Animal kept everything alive and crazy on the team at all times. Probably the best story I can share is the one about his first save with the team,” said Boomer.

“After the save, our catcher (Hiromasa) Fujita took off his mask and ran to the mound to shake the pitcher’s hand, and Animal grabbed him and head-butted him, almost knocking him out. From then on, after every save, Fujita kept his mask on when congratulating Animal on the mound. That’s just one of many stories about my good friend and teammate, Animal. He will surely be missed.”

Lesley’s friend Ray Denny from the Yokosuka Naval Base, said, “My last time to see Brad was a few years back when he stayed here in Yokosuka for a few days offering a baseball clinic for the Department of Defense Dependent Schools kids and other military dependents and local kids who could get on base to see him. One message he gave them was clear: Stay in school, get an education, stay fit and enjoy baseball. Some of his students continue to excel in baseball in high school and college.

“Even at dinner, people came to our table to ask for his autograph or a photograph with him. On a tour of the base, we stopped at a Japanese submarine. The topside watch was so excited and announced the arrival of ‘The Animal’ over the ship’s sound system. People rushed topside to meet him and get his autograph as well.”

Denny concluded, “It is a sad day for baseball fans. Rest in peace, Brad.”

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com