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Kiyohara’s troubles concern, sadden former teammates

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Much has been written and reported since the Feb. 2 arrest of former Seibu Lions, Yomiuri Giants and Orix Buffaloes superstar slugger Kazuhiro Kiyohara for possession and use of illegal drugs. “It’s a shame,” “What a waste” and “I can’t believe it” are typical words of reaction expressed by ex-teammates of Kiyohara and others from the world of Japanese baseball.

What is really a shame is that Kiyohara, a gifted high school athlete who turned pro in 1986, did not need to bulk up.

As a 19-year-old rookie, he belted 31 home runs in helping the Lions win the Japan Series over the Hiroshima Carp. He did that with a slim and trim body, supplying all the power he needed with a sweet batting swing, strong wrist action and great timing.

He would have hit more than 500 career homers anyway, in the same way as did one-time Hiroshima Carp slugger Koji Yamamoto and world home run kings Hank Aaron and Sadaharu Oh. They did not need extra muscle and never hit any Harmon Killebrew monster shots but just sent the ball far enough to clear the fences consistently.

Kiyohara was a handsome 18-year-old first baseman and a star at the National High School Baseball Championship with PL Gakuin of Osaka in 1985, drafted that year by the Lions after Yomiuri, his first choice as a pro team, went instead for his PL teammate, pitcher Masumi Kuwata.

After getting over the shock of not going to the Giants, Kiyohara settled in, became a Pacific League standout and went on to form a most feared cleanup trio (the 3, 4 and 5 hitters in a team’s lineup) with outfielder Koji Akiyama and two foreign players. In 1988, it was one-year wonder Ty Van Burkleo. From 1989-92, with three-time Pacific League home run leader Orestes Destrade.

Kiyohara dutifully played 11 years (1986-1996) with Seibu but decided to fulfill his dream of playing for the Giants in 1997 after acquiring free agency. He was with Yomiuri through the 2006 season and wrapped up his career back in Osaka with the Buffaloes in 2007-08, retiring at the age of 41.

There were memorable scenes during his playing days. In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1987 Japan Series at Lions Stadium, Seibu was about to beat the Giants when Kiyohara’s emotions got the best of him. At his first base position, he began sobbing almost uncontrollably in front of a capacity crowd, and he had to be comforted by Lions second baseman Hatsuhiko Tsuji.

Kiyohara’s popularity with the Seibu fans was undeniable. In 1987, Bert Campaneris was a coach with the Lions, and his stepdaughter attended an international school in western Tokyo. Campy got Kiyohara to sign five shikishi autograph boards which he donated to the school’s bazaar as bingo prizes.

Bazaar patrons and bingo winners found the Kiyohara signboards preferable to winning other items such as hotel stays, dinners at fine restaurants and even airline tickets to exotic vacation destinations.

In 2003, Kiyohara’s PL Gakuin kohai (junior) Kazuyoshi Tatsunami, playing for the Chunichi Dragons, banged out his 2,000th career hit against the Giants at Tokyo Dome. A ball girl ran onto the field to present Tatsunami with a floral symbol of congratulations but, showing class, Kiyohara intercepted the young lady, saying, “Give me the flowers,” and he presented the bouquet to his high school mate.

Everyone’s looks change as they get older, but Kiyohara’s appearance was altered drastically as his career unfolded. His once-slim body got thick above the belt, his complexion became increasingly darker and his facial hair, a kind of string beard, turned prematurely grayish-white. Rumors of possible steroid use surfaced.

It did not have to be that way, and it was a huge disappointment to see him looking like that in the TV news videos as he was arrested earlier this month. Destrade, via email, commented on the situation of his buddy.

“This is very sad and disturbing news about my dear friend and former teammate. Kiyo, Akiyama and Ore formed the 3-4-5 trio known as AKD, and to this day I am most proud of that. My 11-year-old son, Armando Kai Destrade, has the initials AKD,” Destrade wrote.

Born in Cuba but brought up in Miami, Destrade continued, “My thoughts (on hearing the news of the arrest) go to the realm of real concern for Kiyo’s well-being and state of mind. I understand in Japan, my beloved third country, the culture and severe ramifications of such actions. His failure is majorly condemned and criticized. I get that — it is a very serious offense.

“The Japanese baseball player is supposed to be a professional; dedicated, committed and respectful but, in life, just like in baseball, we fail so much more than we succeed. This is a major failure by Kiyo, and it should not be condoned, but there is no greater ‘sportsman hero’ than the one who rises, falls and rises again. I so hope for this for my friend, Kiyo.

“Kiyo needs much help and proper guidance to battle this as hard as he fought to become the great player he was. I believe in Kiyo, and I will support him.”

Another foreign teammate of Kiyohara, Tuffy Rhodes played together with him on the Giants and Buffaloes, and offered similar sentiments in an email message, writing, “Kiyo was and always will be a great man and friend, and he treated me and my friends with the utmost respect. I have never seen him take or use any illegal substances. This is the first I have ever heard of this. I will be praying for him and his family and will be there for him in any way I can.”

Rhodes played 13 seasons in the Pacific and Central Leagues and expects to be back in Japan this season with the Toyama Thunderbirds of Japan’s independent Baseball Challenge League.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com