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Baseball community, friends reflect on Graczyk’s life

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Whenever the Yomiuri Giants were scheduled to play at home, I knew my phone would ring.

“Are you going to Tokyo Dome?” Wayne Graczyk would ask. He wanted to know how many seats to keep free in the press box and how many doughnuts he should buy at Mister Donut, and later Krispy Kreme, to bring with him down the Sobu Line from Kichijoji. He’d pass the doughnuts out to some around him in the press box. All this was unprompted, it was just Wayne doing something nice for others, which he often did.

Sadly, that familiar call I got from him last week will be the last time I hear his voice on the other end of the line. Wayne, who in his 40-plus years in Japan became a cornerstone of the English-language coverage of Japanese baseball, passed away at the age of 68 overnight Tuesday in Kumamoto. He leaves behind his family, wife Yoshiko and children Randall and Gayle, and an extended network of friends, colleagues and those who knew him through his column, the Baseball Bullet-in.

“Wayne Graczyk was one of the most positive people I’ve ever met,” his longtime friend and former Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles general manager Marty Kuehnert said Thursday. “He always had a smile on his face, a pleasant story to tell, a corny joke to make everyone laugh. He loved his God, his wonderful family and many friends, and, of course, baseball. I sometimes encouraged Wayne to be a little more hard-hitting in his stories, to tell it like it is. But he held strong to the principle of saying nothing when he couldn’t find something uplifting to say.”

Having been in Japan since arriving with the U.S. Air Force in 1969, Wayne saw many of the greats, such as Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh, play. He could at anytime take you over to the Tokyo Dome Hotel or part of the nearby amusement park and tell you what part of Korakuen Stadium, the Giants’ pre-Tokyo Dome home, you would’ve been standing in.

Of the current NPB foreign players, Giants reliever Scott Mathieson saw Wayne the most, and the two were close. Mathieson arrived in NPB in 2012 and they spoke before virtually every home game since then, including before Tuesday’s contest in Kumamoto.

“My biggest memory of him would be meeting on the stairs (leading to the home clubhouse) here,” Mathieson said. “He’d always meet me with a smile and a long handshake. I never caught him in a bad mood, and I’ve known him for 5½ years. He was always positive, regardless of the situation.

“I felt like he was someone I could always confide in, who I could always speak pretty freely to. We’d go out to dinner throughout the season as well. He was someone who definitely helped me my first two years. He was always a friendly face, he was always a friendly person to talk to. Regardless of if I was having a good streak or a bad streak, he was always someone I enjoyed talking to.”

His knowledge, and of course the Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook & Media Guide he produced each offseason, made him a favorite of visiting MLB scouts. He endeared himself to NPB’s foreign players through his job with Nippon Television, for whom he interviewed the players before Giants games at Tokyo Dome, and relayed what they said to the night’s TV and radio announcers.

“He always had a story,” Tony Barnette, a reliever for the Texas Rangers and former closer for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, said on Thursday. “You just knew he generally loved what he did. I really enjoyed talking baseball with him. I graced the cover of one of his booklets. He just enjoyed the NPB grind.”

On Aug. 1, 2016, former Yomiuri Giants and Montreal Expos star Warren Cromartie, unprompted, spent part of his speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan telling Wayne how much he appreciated him.

“Before I get going, I just want to say something to Wayne Graczyk, who I like to call the Godfather of Japanese Baseball,” Cromartie said that day. “Without me getting too emotional, I want to say how much that every American baseball player who has played here in Japan owes a lot of credit to you, Wayne. From the bottom of my heart, I want to tell you how much I love you.”

Wayne’s easygoing nature facilitated his rapport with the players.

“Completely shocked,” said Jeremy Powell, who pitched eight seasons in Japan. “And in reading everybody’s responses, this guy really touched people’s lives. Amazes me how far-reaching Wayne is. For me personally, it was nice to see him from day to day. A calm, kind soul who was passionate about the game, and the game’s history, particularly in Japan.”

Depending on the makeup of a team, Wayne might have been one of the few English voices foreign players heard, and thus he sometimes became a friend and confidant because of the warmth and kindness he showed them.

“Wayne was a great asset to me during my years in Japan,” Ty Van Burkleo, the hitting coach for the Cleveland Indians who played for the Seibu Lions and Hiroshima Carp from 1988-91, said Thursday. “As a young player trying to embrace a new culture, I found Wayne’s insight invaluable. I left Japan with so many fond memories and will never forget my friendship with Wayne. We will miss him and God will embrace him.”

Former Giants closer Marc Kroon, who called him “Mr. Wayne,” and Alex Ramirez swore by him. Current Swallows star Wladimir Balentien liked to kid about not being on the cover of Wayne’s media guide. After one such instance, Wayne created a joke cover with, instead of a player representing each team, 12 pictures of Balentien on the front, coaxing a loud, hearty bellow of a laugh out of the slugger.

Wayne liked to tell jokes and funny stories, more often than not cracking himself up before the punchline. He always joked with pitcher Jason Standridge, currently with the Chiba Lotte Marines, that he was named after Wayne and myself, his full name being Jason Wayne Standridge. He said this almost every time the three of us were together before a game, and Jason’s father, and true namesake Wayne, also got a kick out it.

It wasn’t only foreign players either. When Kenjiro Nomura managed the Hiroshima Carp, he would at some point during batting practice always make a beeline for Wayne to have a chat. Ditto for former Swallows manager and current BayStars general manager Shigeru Takada.

People just liked to be around him.

“Like the points on a baseball diamond, Wayne had four points that stood out each time we met: his love for his family, his belief in God, his love for baseball and his love for friends,” said Ray Denny, a naval officer formerly stationed in Japan who has been friends with Wayne since buying the English-language guide at Korakuen Stadium in 1984.

Baseball brought people to Wayne, but the type of person he was made them stick around. Wayne loved baseball, pizza and burgers devoid of almost everything except meat and bread. He was a caring family man who used to drive his wife to her job every morning when she taught and spent a little time playing with the kids, and would tell me sometimes of his now-adult daughter’s affinity for taking in the occasional Swallows game at Jingu Stadium.

“Wayne loved to stick to a routine,” Kuehnert said. “For almost all of the lunches and dinners we had together over the last 40 years, he ordered a cheeseburger with just the meat and cheese. It was also part of his routine to stay in close touch with all his friends. He called me on Tuesday, just before he left for Kumamoto. We talked a little baseball, of course, and agreed to meet soon. How painful it is not to be able to get together again with him and rib him for ordering the same ol’ thing.”

If the outpouring of condolences on social media was any indication, Kuehnert is far from alone in his feelings. Wayne was there for his friends and asked for nothing in return.

If the Giants were at home, you always knew where to find him. Friday’s contest between the Giants and Tigers at Tokyo Dome was the first I can really remember without him being there.

But that feeling started well before the game. Because I was on my way to Tokyo Dome, but my phone wasn’t ringing.