Marc Kroon will be missed.
The flamboyant relief pitcher’s career in Japan has ended after six seasons; three years each with the Yokohama BayStars and Yomiuri Giants and, as mentioned here three weeks ago, Kroon has signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants, with a shot at making the major league club in spring training. I hope he succeeds.
Besides being a great relief pitcher and setting the record for the fastest pitch thrown in a pro baseball game in Japan (162 kph), Kroon was a fan favorite, an exemplary teammate and a fierce competitor who found his niche in Japan after stints in the majors with San Diego, Cincinnati and Colorado.
His presence with the Giants in Tokyo was most prominent prior to each game during batting practice and then again if the game situation dictated a save chance in the ninth inning. Before games he would roam the field getting in his preparatory work and chatting with players — foreigners and Japanese — on the opposing team.
He would hang around after the Giants completed BP to sign autographs for fans, as many as time would allow, then once per series go upstairs inside the main gate at Tokyo Dome, sit down at a specially set-up table with a Magic Marker and shikishi boards and sign 100 more.
“The fans are why we play the game,” he always said, and he loved them.
He had a personal assistant named Ronnie McCurdy, known as “Bachi,” an American living in Yokohama and fluent in Japanese who helped the player get around and ran errands such as picking up Kroon’s family at Narita airport whenever it came to visit.
Over the course of Kroon’s three years with the Giants, I met his two sons, his mother, two sisters and a brother-in-law, and he always brought them on the field to show them off and introduce them to everyone from his manager, Tatsunori Hara, to the media members.
He frequently had guests show up as well, making sure Bachi left tickets for them. They were often friends from the world of music. One of his proudest moments was escorting Mariah Carey, in town for a concert, to the Tokyo Dome pitcher’s mound to throw the ceremonial first pitch at a Giants game.
One of the quirks about Kroon was that, as well as he adjusted to life in Japan and the world of yakyu, he never took a liking to Japanese food — especially raw fish — maintaining instead his craving for American “ballpark food.”
“Give me a hot dog, cheeseburger, fried chicken, pizza,” he would say, and he had to have something along those lines every day between the end of pre-game practice and the time he went to the bullpen to prepare for a save opportunity.
Sometimes he would be at the pizza stand inside the Tokyo Dome a half-hour before game time, in line with the fans placing their orders.
Or he would send Bachi on a Burger King run or across the street for a Subway sando.
When the Giants played games at a countryside ballpark, Kroon’s two biggest concerns were what the pitcher’s mound would be like and if there was a McDonald’s or a Domino’s Pizza delivery outlet nearby.
Kroon’s best year was his first one with Yomiuri in 2008. He led the Central League with 41 saves as the Giants won the pennant.
In 2009, he contributed 27 saves, and Yomiuri won the Japan Series. Last season, he managed 25 saves, but his ERA, a composite 2.37 during his first five seasons, jumped to 4.26, and the team let him go.
He leaves behind some memorable scenes, though, highlighted by that intense competitiveness.
There was a play where Kroon fielded a ground ball and ran directly toward a Yakult Swallows runner caught between second and third base. He got him in a rundown — but never made a throw. Instead he chased the runner back to second, hell-bent on making the play himself. Kroon made the tag for the out but fell over the guy and broke a finger.
Later, the runner said, as he was being chased, he saw the look in Kroon’s eyes and had never been so scared in his life.
Then there was the time Kroon got out of a ninth-inning jam with the bases loaded, two outs and the tying run on third, by smothering a grounder headed toward center field. He was on his knees, though, and not in a position to throw. The best he could do was roll the ball underhanded on the ground to first base — just in time to nail the batter-runner and end the game with a Giants victory.
“Nice bowling,” said one of the radio announcers, and Kroon’s teammates, led by catcher Shinnosuke Abe, later had T-shirts printed with a caricature of the pitcher rolling a ball and the phrase, “Whatever it Takes.” Kroon got a good laugh out of that.
The best scene, though — repeated often — came when Kroon’s name was announced as he came in to try for another save at Tokyo Dome. He would strut confidently to the mound and start warming up with Abe, as the Alicia Keys and Jay-Z song “Empire State of Mind” blared over the stadium P.A. system.
“Big lights will inspire you.”
Now the lights have been turned out on his Japan career, but Kroon leaves behind a legion of friends, 177 saves, that speed record, thousands of admiring fans, a zillion autographs and countless great memories.
There was never a dull moment when Marc was around and, as I said, he will be missed.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com
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