Yokohama BayStars relief pitcher Marc Kroon made headlines July 19 when he threw a 161-kph (100.6 mph) fastball in a game against the Hanshin Tigers at Koshien Stadium. However, setting a record for the fastest pitch thrown in a Japan pro baseball game was not his goal.

“Getting the hitters out, racking up another save and preserving victories for the BayStars is the reason I’m out there,” said the first-year closer.

So far this season, he has done just that.

Since taking over the game-ending role from the injured Kazuhiro “Daimajin” Sasaki a month into the season, Kroon has saved 16 for the ‘Stars and, overall, has posted a 2-0 record with a stingy 1.83 ERA in 35 appearances. He has yet to blow a save, made the Central League all-star team and is drawing more attention than any foreign relief pitcher in Japan since Brad “The Animal” Lesley joined the Hankyu Braves in 1986 and began playfully sumo wrestling with sportswriters before games and kissing the bat barrels he had sawed off with inside-tailing fastballs to right-handed batters.

There is no doubt Kroon is one of the big reasons the BayStars, expected to finish fifth or sixth in the CL pennant race this season, are in third place at the All-Star break, but the highway from his native Bronx, New York, to Yokohama via Arizona was filled with detours marked with road signs of destiny.

Kroon says he did not even play baseball (save for Little League) until his senior year at Shadow Mountain in High School in Phoenix.

“I played football and basketball my freshman and sophomore years in New York,” he said. Then his life was changed by a twist of fate — a relocation by his family he did not want.

“My father was working for American Express,” Kroon recalls. “He was sent by the company to open an office in Phoenix and was supposed to be there only for six months. But when my mother went out to visit him, she fell in love with the city, and they decided to move there.

“No way did I want to go, as I had my friends, my life, everything in the Bronx. So I ran away from home for two days,” he said. Finally, he returned and reluctantly joined his parents in the southwest, enrolling at Shadow Mountain where he was the only black kid in the school.

He found his new environment difficult to get used to and says, “I went from a place where the only white people I saw were on TV to a place where the only other black people I saw were on TV.”

Kroon’s baseball ambitions were also dealt a severe blow by the stricter rules for athletic qualification for students at his new school.

“I failed one course my junior year and was ineligible to play sports. In New York, you had to flunk three classes before you were banned from trying out for a team.”

Finally, in his senior year, he was able to play ball and display his real talent and firepower. He remembered one 10-inning game where he struck out 20 batters and attracted the attention of professional baseball scouts.

He signed with the New York Mets at the age of 18 on June 13, 1991, and later played in the organizations of the San Diego Padres, Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Dodgers, Anaheim Angels and Colorado Rockies, with time in the majors at San Diego, Cincinnati and Colorado.

He makes his off-season home in Arizona and, while Kroon never thought he could be happy living there, he also at one time never imagined playing in Japan.

“I was a troubled kid,” he said of his days in the Bronx. “I could have easily ended up in jail — or dead.”

Instead, he’s almost as well-known in Yokohama as the Landmark Tower or Chinatown. At 32, he says he would not mind playing five more years for the BayStars, especially for manager Kazuhiko Ushijima, with whom he can easily identify.

“He knows the pressure of being a closer,” Kroon said of his skipper who served in that role as an active player with the Chunichi Dragons (1980-1986) and Lotte Orions (1987-1990) with a career-high 29 saves in 1984.

Kroon also credits his rookie manager for the fine job he’s done this year leading the BayStars into the “A Class” (top three) in the Central League standings.

Marc also has high praise for the man he replaced in the team’s closer role. “I admire Sasaki so much, not only for what he has done in Japan but also in the majors,” said Kroon, referring to his teammate’s long career with Yokohama before and after his four-year stint as the closer for the American League Seattle Mariners.

Sasaki is expected back off the injured list next month, and it remains to be seen what Ushijima will do, assuming the “Daimajin” returns to full strength.

Will Kroon stay as the closer or go back to the set-up role he played at the beginning of the season?

“Whatever the manager decides is fine with me,” said Kroon, speaking like a true team player. “My goal was to get 10 saves while Sasaki was out,” he said, having either misjudged the length of Sasaki’s absence or under-estimated his own ability. He’s already saved 16 and could make 20 by the time “Daimajin” reappears.

Kroon’s trademark is wearing his cap slightly crooked — tilted a little to the left. He’s done that his entire pro career after a coach during his rookie year suggested he “do something different” so as to be noticed; sort-of a reverse of the “nail that sticks up will be hammered down” theory.

In this case, the nail that sticks up gets the attention.

Kroon has no trouble being recognized these days. Prior to a recent game against the Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome, he stopped off at the Subway sandwich shop across from the Big Egg to pick up a sub sando, and it took him an hour to get to the ballpark, the normally five-minute walk delayed by fans wanting an autograph or photo.

The BayStars may not have known it at the time, but they hit the jackpot when they signed this guy, and Kroon is happy throwing that heater and pocketing the saves for Yokohama.

It sure beats being in jail — or being dead.

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