But each and
every night of his 23-year career, before going to bed, he swung a bat. He
would be drinking in a bar with teammates, then suddenly disappear only to
return an hour or so later. Nobody knew until many years into Kinugasa's career
that he was off alone, taking shadow swings.
The story is told
of the time in the summer of 1970. Kinugasa's sixth year in professional ball,
when he staggered back to the Carp dormitory at dawn, dead drunk. Coach Junzo
Sekine, who had been working one-on-one with Kinugasa every night, was waiting
for him. "You forgot to practice your swing," he said. Kinugasa swung
his bat 100 times, then crumpled to the ground, crying from exhaustion.
veteran Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times, expressed Kinugasa's appeal
well when he wrote in 1987: "[Kinugasa] is a rock of consistency, and, as
such, the salariman's hero. The salariman—the Japanese word is taken direct
from English, 'salaryman'—is Japan's average Joe. He is the guy who puts on a
blue suit every morning, rides the train to work for an hour and a half, puts
in 10-12 hours, drinks late into the night with his colleagues, then heads home
for a few hours sleep so that he can start all over again the next day.
salariman, Kinugasa is there as promised every day."
five broken bones over the years, yet never missed a game. His streak was in
the greatest danger in August 1979, when Giants pitcher Takashi Nishimoto hit
him in the back with an errant pitch. He was taken to the hospital, where
doctors diagnosed his injury as a fracture of the left shoulder blade and
ordered him not to play.
a fitful night. The next day he taped up his shoulder, went to the park and
stepped into the batting cage. For the next 10 minutes, he swung his bat hard,
as always, showing his manager that he was capable of playing.
His remarks about
that day have been repeated many times in the Japanese media: "It would
have been even more painful for me to stay home. If I played and swung the bat,
the pain in my shoulder would last only an instant. If I had to stay home and
watch the game on TV, I'd hurt all over for three hours."
Kinugasa may have
had a special motivation to succeed. His father, who was a black American
soldier stationed in Okinawa after the war, deserted his family. As a boy
growing up in Kyoto, Kinugasa put up with taunts from schoolmates about his
background. It was the only subject about which he was really sensitive.
Kinugasa's father was not mentioned in either of his authorized biographies,
and there were standing orders on the Hiroshima team never to talk about him.
Kinugasa's former room-mate Tatsuo Okitsu, a Carp outfielder, in spite of the
team policy later told a reporter about the time he found Kinugasa awake late
at night studying English.
"I asked him
why," said Okitsu, "and he said he wanted to go to America to look for
his father because he'd never met him. I told him he'd do better working more
on his swing instead of English. 'If you become the Number One player in Japan,
he'll come to see you,' I told him."
His father never
came, but for one shining summer, in 1987, Kinugasa was indeed No. 1.