Latham's 1998 Guide
to Japanese Baseball...
the Tokyo Tower elevator let more people down than Giants
first-baseman Kazuhiro Kiyohara did in 1997.
The Pacific League all-star joined the Giants that year with big expectations. In his eleven years with the Seibu Lions, Kiyohara banged 329 home runs with 915 RBIs. Typical of power hitters, he's relatively slow and his career .274 average is not that great. In the past few years, Mr. Sideburns has been hovering around .250. While occasionally sidelined with aches and pains, Kiyohara played in over 95% of Seibu's games. Generally consistent, the former Lions first baseman can be expected to hit at least twenty-five home runs and 75 RBIs a season.
And that's essentially what the Giants got from him in 1997. Batting .249, Kiyohara slugged 32 home runs and tallied 95 RBIs. So why all the complaints? The biggest reason, of course, is that the Giants finished last in 1997. Since expectations were highest for Kiyohara, naturally fans were disappointed by his "average" season. Moreover, by the 1997 All-Star break, the former Seibu slugger was only batting around .220.
Joining the Giants, he had signed one of the fattest contracts in Japanese baseball history. People wanted their money's worth, and by July 1997 when he failed to lead the team beyond last place, he got the lions share of the blame. There were complaints that he only seemed to hit home runs during games that either Giants went on to lose or which didn't matter -- like during the second 1997 All-Star game.
Shortly after his all-star appearance, Kiyohara was skewered in the Daily Yomiuri, part of the media conglomerate that owns the Giants, for his disappointing performance in regular season games. Under the July 28, 1997 headline Giants, Kiyohara begin 2nd half with loss, and beside a picture of Kiyohara striking out (caption: "Kiyohara fails to deliver..."), read a scathing story about the Kyojin's 12-2 loss the night before.
"After watching high-priced free-agent Kazuhiro Kiyohara shine in the second all star game, the Giants fans had high expectations . . . Unfortunately for the fans, Kiyohara couldn't play up to the all-star level he showed [a week earlier] . . . Kiyohara had one meaningless hit in four at-bats and failed to produce with runners in position."
No other Giants players were mentioned in the article, not even the pitchers who gave up twelve runs. Kiyohara alone carried the blame for the loss and the losing season.
But such an assessment is simply unfair and inaccurate. True, the Giants first baseman got off to a slow start, but he had a good August, and his final numbers are well within the range of normal for him.
If fans were disappointed, it was their fault for believing the hype about Kiyohara being the second coming of Shigeo Nagashima. Before the season, there was even some talk about un-retiring Nagashima's number 3 (the same number Kiyohara wore for the Lions) so the former Seibu slugger could wear it.
There was, of course, also the hyped side story about the reunion between Kiyohara and his high-school buddy Masumi Kuwata. When the Giants picked Kuwata in the 1986 draft, Kiyohara reportedly cried. Thus, when he became a free-agent in 1996, the slugger quickly left the Lions and joined Yomiuri.
Before the final out of the 1987 Japan Series, with the Lions poised to win, the game had to be stopped because Kiyohara was weeping so heavily. Despite his team winning the championship, the Lions first baseman was crushed because his beloved Giants, the team he had always wanted to join, were about to lose. Such immature and pathetic behavior has been one of the slugger's most consistent traits.
After becoming a free agent in late 1996, Kiyohara made everyone wait for his inevitable decision. The Giants had made clear that if he joined, he would be their regular first baseman. That was news to the man who had just led the Giants to the Japan Series, first baseman Hiromitsu Ochiai -- who, with a lifetime .315 average and 505 home runs, is Japan's only three-time triple crown winner. Though forty-three at the time, Ochiai had just hit 21 home runs and 86 RBIs with a .301 average for the Giants.
While weighing lucrative offers (from the Tigers and Giants), Kiyohara made Ochiai wait in limbo. Gracefully, the elder first baseman asked to be released if the Giants signed the Seibu slugger so Manager Nagashima would not have to choose between playing the two men. But, Ochiai added, he just wished Kiyohara would make up his mind more quickly. With that exit, the triple-crown winner earned a great deal of sympathy while the Seibu Hamlet appeared inconsiderate.
Such lack of poise seems as consistent as Kiyohara's batting. Some fans complain that he's rude to autograph seekers. On the field, Kiyohara has also angered fans, but not only because of his supposed poor batting and habit of stranding runners in scoring position. In late July, 1997, he criticized Giants fans for only cheering for him when he hits a home runs: "That's not good."
However, the reason the oendan (official cheering section) had stopped cheering for Kiyohara is because, after he had gotten hits and the cheerleaders had led a triple-banzai for him, he had failed to either bow or tip his hat to the fans (as is the custom). Still a weeping, whining child who has never grown up, Kiyohara has indeed found a home with the Giants.