The past week was one of returns in Japanese baseball.
Interleague play is back, with the annual competition between the Central and Pacific Leagues having kicked off on June 4.
So is Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks pitcher Rick van den Hurk, who returned from a nagging ailment, and his teammate Tsuyoshi Wada as well. Ditto for Yomiuri Giants hurlers Scott Mathieson, who got a hero’s welcome at Tokyo Dome Saturday, and Tomoyuki Sugano.
But the best return of the week, and of the season, was by Hanshin Tigers catcher Fumihito Haraguchi.
It wasn’t even close either. After all, it’s kind of hard to top having surgery to combat cancer in January and returning to the diamond a few months later. Not to mention connecting on a sayonara hit to cap your first week back, which Haraguchi did against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Sunday at Koshien Stadium.
That’s almost storybook stuff right there.
“Because I’ve been blessed with support from all around, really from everyone gathered here, watching on TV, listening on radio and the Tigers fans all over the country who have supported me, I feel great to be able to have this day,” Haraguchi said during his hero interview on Sunday.
Simply getting back on the field this week was a huge accomplishment, but Haraguchi took it a step further against the Fighters.
He entered the game as a pinch hitter with the score knotted at 3-3 and two runners on base in the ninth inning. Facing the Fighters’ Ryo Akiyoshi, Haraguchi lined a ball into center that fell in front of charging outfielder Haruki Nishikawa to set off wild celebrations, and also some tears, in the stands and on the field.
Some of the reaction was the jubilation of sudden victory. But most of it was probably because it was Haraguchi who managed to strike the decisive blow.
“It was emotional,” Tigers manager Akihiro Yano told Sports Nippon. “I was really, really moved.”
Cancer is a scary thing to deal with. For Haraguchi to not only overcome his illness, but to do it in such a fashion that he’s able to resume his career as a pro ballplayer is a testament to his determination.
Baseball and sports are important, but they always take a backseat when compared to things such as health and other serious real-life issues. There’s no such thing as a little cancer and no one who wants to hear their doctor utter the word.
Haraguchi heard it after a health check at the end of 2018 discovered the Tigers catcher had colorectal cancer. He revealed the diagnosis to fans on Jan. 26, days before undergoing surgery to treat it.
Haraguchi began training again in March and made his season debut on the top team during Hanshin’s interleague opener on June 4 against the Chiba Lotte Marines, entering as a pinch hitter in the ninth.
He received applause from fans of both teams at Zozo Marine Stadium and promptly drove in a run with a double.
He played in his first home game on Friday against the Fighters and finally slipped back into his catcher’s gear again on Saturday.
Then came Sunday’s heroics.
“I was just hoping it was going to fall in center as I was running,” Haraguchi said.
Haraguchi has appeared in five games so far this season and has a pair of hits and two RBIs in five at-bats.
To deal with the physical and mental obstacles he must have faced to get back into uniform isn’t something that should be taken lightly.
It’s great he’s come up with some notable moments since coming back, but just making it back to the diamond is deserving of a standing ovation.
No matter what Haraguchi does statistically, his presence is an enormous achievement and could also be a source of inspiration to others suffering from the same ailment.
“If what I’m doing can have that kind of power, then I want to keep doing it,” he said. “Because I think there is meaning in living and playing baseball, so from now I want to do my best.”