As we see the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, I have compiled a list of five people, places and things I will miss when the new Japanese baseball season rolls around in the spring. Here they are:
• Sadaharu Oh
It will be, as they say in Japanese, sabishii — or lonely — to go to a Fukuoka Softbank Hawks game and not see Oh-san who has stepped down, at age 68 and due to health problems, after 14 seasons as manager of the Daiei and Softbank Hawks.
Oh could always be seen on the field during pregame batting practice, watching his hitters take their cuts. He would occasionally move away from the practice cages for a chat with a few media members or pose for a photo with some fans or supporters lucky enough to get special field passes for the day.
A friendly greeting and a tip of the cap were his trademarks, and he was always ready to answer any questions thrown his way. Former Seibu Lions and Hawks slugger Koji Akiyama has succeeded Oh as the Softbank field boss and will probably do a decent job, but there will be a noticeable emptiness.
As the headline read in one of Japan’s English-language papers above the story of Oh’s retirement as an active player with the Yomiuri Giants following the 1980 season: “No Oh? Oh No!”
• Hiroshima Civic Stadium
The old ball park will give way to Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium, and new facilities are exciting, but there is always a melancholy feeling for me when a stadium with a long history and lots of memories goes out of service, usually by way of the wrecking ball.
I felt the same way when they knocked down Korakuen Stadium and stopped playing at Kawasaki Stadium, Nagoya Stadium, Nishinomiya Stadium, Osaka Stadium and Fujiidera Stadium. I saw games at all of them in the 1970s and ’80s and have fond memories of watching the action.
The one that hurt the most, however, was the destruction of Heiwadai Stadium in Fukuoka after that city’s domed stadium was opened in 1993. It was at Heiwadai where I saw my first Japanese pro baseball game on Aug. 20, 1970, when the Nishitetsu Lions hosted the Kintetsu Buffaloes.
The unhappiness I feel when a ballpark is closed most likely comes from a childhood in the New York area when I saw the Brooklyn Dodgers play at Ebbets Field, and the New York Giants — and later the Mets during their first two seasons of existence in 1962-63 — at the Polo Grounds.
Shea Stadium was nice but did not have the coziness of Flatbush or Coogan’s Bluff, and now even Shea and the old Yankee Stadium are fading into history along with that nostalgic park in downtown Hiroshima. Sigh.
• Tyrone Woods and Jeremy Powell
It is also always sad to see longtime foreign players leave Japan. Covering about 100 games a season, I get to know the guys, especially those playing more than three years here.
Mr. T. and J.P. are two of the most media-friendly and easy-to-get-along-with players I have dealt with in 33 years on the Japanese baseball beat. Woods played six years here, two with the Yokohama BayStars and four with the Chunichi Dragons. Powell is an eight-year Japan veteran with the Kintetsu and Orix Buffaloes, Yomiuri Giants and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.
As I wrote in columns of recent weeks, there is a chance either or both might return to the Central or Pacific League in 2009 but, if they are not offered contracts to continue playing in Japan, they will be missed.
That also goes for Jose Fernandez, Alex Ochoa, Rick Guttormson, Ryan Vogelsong, Jose Ortiz, Julio Zuleta, Ryan Glynn, Adam Riggs and Domingo Guzman. All have been dropped from the rosters of the Japanese teams for which they played in 2008 but, hopefully, some will be invited back by other clubs for the 2009 season.
• “Sky High” and “Go West”
These are songs played for several years at Tokyo Dome when now-former Yomiuri Giants players Tomohiro Nioka and Takayuki Shimizu came up to bat. Each Kyojin player has a designated tune played over the P.A. by the stadium control room when his turn comes to hit or when a pitcher takes to the mound, and these were the best.
The 1975 record “Sky High” by the one-hit wonder group Jigsaw was Nioka’s signature tune, and “Go West,” a popular ditty from 1993 by the Pet Shop Boys, was Shimizu’s cue to approach home plate and take his licks. The Giants cheering section continued singing them when the music stopped as the opposing pitcher got set to deliver.
Both players are heading for duty in the Pacific League in 2009. Nioka has been traded to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, and Shimizu has transferred to the Saitama Seibu Lions. We are left with a bunch of hard rock and rap songs for the other Giants, and I may need earplugs to muffle the sound of most.
• Masaaki Nagino
The Central and Pacific League offices are being consolidated under the Nippon Professional Baseball Commissioner’s Office umbrella, and Nagino, a member of the CL planning committee who has worked for the league more than 20 years, retired Dec. 24.
You may not know him and maybe never heard of him, but he was the English-language contact in the CL office and was always ready to help by sending schedules, checking information and answering any and all questions.
Nagino is a gentleman with a quiet personality, content to remain low-key but always there and happy to help when you needed something.
Arigato for your assistance and good luck, my friend, in whatever you do.
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Wayne Graczyk at wayne@JapanBall.com
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