Fumihito Haraguchi was recovering from surgery to combat cancer when the NPB season began.
On Friday night, he took his place among the best players in Japan as part of the Central League roster for this year’s All-Star Series.
As if being an All-Star wasn’t enough, the 27-year-old Hanshin Tigers catcher connected on a pinch-hit two-run homer in the ninth that set off a wave of jubilation and raucous cheering that threatened to knock the roof off Tokyo Dome during the Pacific League’s 6-3 win.
“There were a lot of people who supported me and helped me through everything to get to a stage such as this,” Haraguchi told The Japan Times. “It’s a really happy feeling and I just have a lot of gratitude.”
Haraguchi was the winner of the “Plus One” voting that allowed fans to pick the final member of each All-Star roster. He got 6,662 votes to beat out second-place Seiji Kobayashi, the Yomiuri Giants catcher who received 6,277.
Haraguchi got the loudest cheers from the fans at the Big Egg all night. They roared after his homer and were nearly as loud when he was given one of the outstanding player awards after the game.
“I was talking with (Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks manager Kimiyasu) Kudo and (Seibu Lions skipper Hatsuhiko) Tsuji and I thought there must really be baseball gods,” Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama, one of the PL coaches, told Nikkan Sports after the game.
Haraguchi was diagnosed with colorectal cancer during a checkup at the end of 2018 and underwent surgery in January. He was able to return to training in March, when he began working out at the club’s facility.
Haraguchi returned to the field with the top team in June and got a pinch-hit RBI double in his first game back. A few days later, he connected on a sayonara single at home against the Fighters.
He has appeared in 19 games so far this year and driven in five runs.
“I had a few chances to play and I really tried to put up good results when I was given opportunities,” Haraguchi said. “I really wanted to become an asset to the team and I want to continue to play with that feeling in the second half.”
His homer in the All-Star Game came with the Central League trailing 6-1 in the ninth. Orix Buffaloes pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto recorded two quick outs to start the inning before the Chunichi Dragons’ Shuhei Takahashi, the CL batting leader, singled to center.
Haraguchi was brought on to hit for his Tigers teammate Ryutaro Umeno. He fouled off the first pitch, took the second for a ball and then sent a 148-kph cutter screaming over the left-field wall.
As loud as the fans were on Friday, the volume will probably be turned up in Game 2, which was scheduled to be played at Koshien Stadium, the Tigers’ home park, on Saturday.
Haraguchi’s triumph goes beyond baseball. He’s also well aware there are others around the world still fighting the same battle he fought.
“For those people fighting illness, I would say try to stay positive and think about good things,” Haraguchi said. “Now that I’m in a place where I’m able to really express that kind of feeling again, I want to do my best to show that and help encourage people.”