Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Kiyomiya already getting star treatment from NPB world

by Jason Coskrey

On the night Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks captain Seiichi Uchikawa reached the 2,000-hit milestone, one of the the first items on public broadcaster NHK’s 9 p.m. national news program was a breathless retelling of the first NPB home run hit by Kotaro Kiyomiya, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ prized rookie.

Kiyomiya dominated the sports news cycle that night, rendering Uchikawa a secondary event. The next morning, it was Kiyomiya’s face peering out from newspaper stands in the Tokyo area (with almost no mention of Uchikawa on the lead pages), and it was Kiyomiya guests on TV morning programs fawned over. If there was ever a bad time to join one of NPB’s most celebrated clubs — only 51 players have reached 2,000 hits in NPB — Uchikawa found it.

The attention Kiyomiya is drawing simply doesn’t leave a lot of time for the spotlight to shine on anything else, even on a player as well-regarded as Uchikawa.

Shohei Ohtani’s departure to MLB left NPB lacking a truly household name — ironically an issue MLB is grappling with despite the presence of players such as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. The game remains popular, and players are stars in their regions and among baseball fans. However, there aren’t any with the transcendent star power Ohtani had, that Yuki Saito entered NPB with and that Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka attained late in their NPB careers.

Those players had name recognition that extended beyond baseball fans and out into the mainstream. Now, there seems to be a push to put Kiyomiya on the throne in the near future. Not that it’s a bad thing, it’s just a matter of Kiyomiya being up to the challenge. Ohtani deftly performed under that pressure, while the burden was too much for Saito, still a pitcher for the Fighters, to bear.

In a just world, the Hawks’ Yuki Yanagita would be that star, based on his skills and results. But it’s the 18-year-old Kiyomiya who charmed the nation as a high-schooler at Waseda Jitsugyo.

As popular as pro baseball is, there’s nothing Japanese fans love more than a young, talented amateur, and the fandom often follows the player into the pro ranks.

Kiyomiya fits the bill, with an unofficial-record 111 home runs in high school having launched him into the stratosphere the way pitcher Daisuke Araki, slugger Kazuhiro Kiyohara, Saito and others achieved amateur superstardom before him.

Once he was drafted, he was the center of attention. When word broke the Fighters were calling him up in late April, news shows took to the streets to gauge fan reactions and names such as Hideki Matsui, Kiyohara and Sadaharu Oh were bandied about by commentators. Oh, a Waseda grad himself, posed for photos with Kiyomiya before the Hawks-Fighters series over this past weekend.

The night Kiyomiya made his NPB debut, May 2, the Fighters passed out commemorative cards bearing his photo to fans attending the game to mark the occasion.

Kiyomiya nearly homered in his first at-bat, doubling off the Sapporo Dome wall in center field against Takayuki Kishi of the Tokoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Kishi went on to throw a three-hit shutout, his first in two seasons. But since he was breathing the same air as Kiyomiya, two of the four questions he fielded in his hero interview were about the young star.

“He hit a ball that flew pretty far, so I had to be a little careful from there,” Kishi said of Kiyomiya’s double.

Right now, everything comes back to Kiyomiya, who has been in NPB for less than a month. Granted, it hasn’t been all empty hype. He did begin his career with a seven-game hitting streak, a record for a player drafted out of high school. His thunder-stealing home run was also headline worthy, landing in the second level at Kyocera Dome in Osaka on May 9.

“I knew it was gone the instant I hit it,” he told reporters. “I was able to hit a home run because I’ve been able to pile up a lot of at-bats, I don’t think it was a fluke.”

Kiyomiya has made waves, now he’ll have to make adjustments, and learn to hit breaking balls. Opposing pitchers and coaches will sniff out his weaknesses, and he’ll have to adapt to survive. The difficultly has already ramped up, with the rookie currently in an 0-for-18 slump, with one walk, since the home run.

Kiyomiya is just 18, and it’s too early to know how his career arc will play out. While many want to see Kiyomiya blossom, unless he has the game to go with the fame, his star power will just wither on the vine.