2014 NPB season-opening series in California appears unlikely


Reader and fan of Japanese baseball Leon DeHaven in Arizona wants to know if the proposed 2014 season-opening series between the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers in Southern California (Baseball Bullet-In, April 28) is still going to happen. “I’m ready to rent a room in Anaheim,” he wrote in an email.

Announcement of the tour, which would include exhibition games with major league teams in DeHaven’s home state prior to official games at Dodger Stadium and Angels Stadium, was to have been made last month, but it has been quiet.

Better hold off on that hotel reservation, Leon. The series is in doubt and, according to a report in the June 4 edition of the Nikkan Sports, there has been little or no movement toward finalizing the event, and it appears the trip could very well be scrapped.

The theme of the Nikkan article centered around speculation that going through with the series and all it would entail would turn out to be a red-ink affair, especially with the unknown factor of how many tickets might be sold and what kind of crowds might be expected.

It seemed like a great idea and an interesting way to commemorate the 80th anniversary of professional baseball in Japan but, let’s face it; while MLB teams such as the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics can sell out Tokyo Dome, there is no guarantee fans in Los Angeles would turn out to see Hanshin and Yomiuri.

The Nikkan article seemed to indicate the door is not yet completely closed, but the planners have apparently gone back to square one, and time is getting short to organize the trip and make it official.

After reading the May 5 column about the April 28 death of former Hankyu Braves pitcher Brad “Animal” Lesley, Travis Holcombe, a fan and acquaintance of the Animal, sent the following heart-warming account about his friendship with the former player and tells how his life was changed for the better after meeting the player in Kansai more than 25 years ago:

I just wanted to thank you for your piece on Animal Lesley. My mom told me about his passing, and I’ve been scouring the Internet and reading everything I can on him, but I thought your piece was right on, in as far as delving into the personal side of Animal. He was a great man.

I was born and raised in America. My parents split up when I was in the first grade, and I moved with my mom (who is Japanese) to Japan. I was having a rough time adjusting to living without my dad and in a completely different culture. The kids in the neighborhood let me play with them, but I was constantly made fun of for being different.

Baseball was the one thing that was kind of the same between Japan and America. I lived in Amagasaki, just a few train stops away from where the Hankyu Braves played and, being a foreigner, I always rooted for the foreign players on every team, but Boomer (Wells) and Animal were my favorite players, followed distantly by Bob Horner and Warren Cromartie.

One day my mom and I were on the train waiting to go home, and Animal walked into our car. I was overcome with excitement. I remember telling my mom, “I think that’s Animal!”

She was like, “Are you sure?” I had never seen him without a baseball cap, but I told her I was about 99 percent sure. My mom got up and asked him point blank, “Are you Animal?”

He nodded, and she told him what a big fan I was and how much baseball meant to me since moving to Japan. He asked me how old I was and which team was my favorite. I was so in awe of being in front of Animal, I could barely speak.

Animal had also come from a broken home, and I guess he empathized in some ways with my situation. He and my mom exchanged numbers, and he would call to check on me about once or twice per week to talk baseball, see how I was doing and offer encouragement if I was feeling down. He would leave us tickets to some of the home games and, if I got there during warm-ups, Animal would throw me some baseballs to take home.

In short, Animal become a huge hero for Holcombe.

He went on to write:

Japan went from being the worst place in the world to kind of cool in my 6-year-old mind. The neighborhood kids didn’t believe I was friends with Animal, until one day I brought home Animal’s giant glove with his name embroidered in kanji. It didn’t stop the teasing altogether, but it definitely gave me some juice in the neighborhood and made me feel like the coolest kid in the world.

(Note: Lesley adopted three kanji characters reading “A-ni-maru” to write his name and sign autographs.)

I moved back to the United States to live with my dad after about eight months in Japan, and I’d hear from Animal every now and then, but we eventually lost contact. I’d see him pop up on episodes of (the TV program) “Takeshi Joh” my mom would tape record for me and in random movies from time to time.

He meant so much to me at such a difficult time in my life. Maybe he knew that, maybe he didn’t — but I’m pretty sure he knew. I wish I could have told him in person, as an adult, how much he meant, though.

Anyway, I just wanted to share my story. Thanks again for writing that tribute to an amazing person. He will be missed.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com

  • Keith Brock

    Too bad about the US series being dropped. I can’t make it back to Japan for couple of years, but I probably could have put together a trip to California.