Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Yomiuri reliever Takagi gets rude welcome in NPB return

by Jason Coskrey

Yomiuri Giants reliever Kyosuke Takagi made his return to baseball essentially under cover of darkness Friday. But even with the Tokyo Dome lights off for the opening-day ceremony, Takagi’s presence was illuminated by the chorus of boos emanating from the Hanshin Tigers fans in left field.

The Tigers supporters were even more forceful in their disdain once they could see the left-hander properly, when he made his season debut during the eighth inning with the lights shining bright.

Takagi’s actual pitching performance was mostly unremarkable. He allowed a hit to the first batter he faced and was soon back in the dugout after recording three quick outs. The more interesting part of the night was how he was received and whether it was a one-off occurrence or a sign of things to come from opposing fans.

Takagi is in an interesting spot — of his own making, it must be said. He’s returning to NPB after being punished for gambling on baseball games. In 2016, he admitted his involvement in betting on games, was found guilty and then suspended for the 2016 season as part of a scandal that saw three other Yomiuri players banned indefinitely. He then spent 2017 on Yomiuri’s developmental roster before returning to the top team this year.

“I did something very serious and I fully understand it’s not something I can atone for easily,” Kyodo News quoted Takagi as saying during a news conference after his reinstatement in 2017. “I’ll take baseball seriously and will not make the same mistake again.”

But while Takagi served the punishment handed down, the fans were denied their pound of flesh. Until now.

Gambling on games is often singled out for particular scorn as far as baseball transgressions go — look no further than the saga of Pete Rose in MLB or the Black Mist scandal in NPB from 1969-71. Given that, it will be interesting to see how Takagi is received by fans around the league.

If Friday was any indication, it won’t be with open arms. As loud as the booing was during Friday’s game, the Giants were at home. It could be even louder on the road, at least at Koshien Stadium.

Some of the reaction by the fans on Friday was likely down to the heated rivalry between the franchises. Hanshin fans had an opportunity to rub a bit of salt in a Yomiuri wound and adjusted their level of pettiness accordingly. They also booed pitcher Shun Yamaguchi, who last year was suspended after being accused of causing bodily harm and property damage during a night out drinking.

At the same time, Japanese fans, even Hanshin fans, aren’t particularly prone to booing opposing players just because. Plus, with the example having been set, Takagi could face this in at least a few stops this season.

If so, it’ll be wholly up to him to not let it get under his skin or worse, affect his performance. He’s facing a lot of pressure by simply coming back. Having everyone boo you all the time doesn’t exactly make it easier.

Takagi avoided a long ban by coming clean with investigators. Now, he’s back under both the bright lights and the scrutiny that comes with that position.

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