Friday, November 16, 2007

Kazuhisa Inao, 1937-2007

I've been thinking about this for the last few days, and it just makes me sad that I don't have appropriate words for the situation at all. If you really want to read a fantastic obituary, go check out Japan Baseball Daily, where Gary has not only written an extensive obituary story but even translated several players' comments and respsects.

I guess what's strange is, it was only a month ago that Inao was a color commentator on the Pacific League playoffs.

It was only a week or two ago that I was IMing with my friend Jeff (who has also written his respects) about Inao and other "oldtimers", as we were looking through the pages of the Master's League pages and giggling over the "OMG, this geezer?" factor on many pages. I was even looking at the Fukuoka team page like "Wow, they have Inao as their manager! How cool is that?" (Seriously, if you're a Japanese baseball history nerd, you should go look through the rosters.)

On Sunday, at the Asia Series final, I was looking at my friend Pau's collection of Nostalgic Baseball cards, which is a gorgeous card set overall. One of the cards, of course, is of Inao. We even were talking about Inao for a while, and other "iron man" pitching feats. I don't think either of us knew that he had cancer.

On Tuesday, Inao died at the age of 70.

On Friday, I'm still a little bit stunned when I think about it.

Back when I was first learning about Japanese baseball, I learned about many of the "great" players who did various legendary things. Inao was of course one of the examples of "typical" Japanese pitcher overworking, a guy who was best known for things like personally having a won-loss record of 4-2 in the 1958 Japan Series. (No, really. He pitched 47 out of 62 innings for the Nishitetsu Lions in that series and even hit a walk-off home run in the 5th game.) Inao also co-owns the single-season wins record in Japan, having gone 42-14 in 1961. 42 wins! Pitchers these days don't even make 42 starts in a year! After doing things like regularly pitching 300-400 innings for several years in a row, he inevitably blew out his shoulder and was pretty much done being a legend at the age of 26.

After his playing career was over, he still stayed involved in baseball in various ways. I was rereading Robert Whiting's series of books, and of course they mention that Inao managed for Lotte in the 1980's, and was laid-back and liked to hang out and drink with his players, rather than having a crazy regimen, and this helped guys like Hiromitsu Ochiai flourish with his cocky Triple-Crown-predicting attitude. In a weird chain of events, Inao leaving the Orions and the stricter Aritoh taking over as manager led to Ochiai going off to Chunichi; and perhaps if Ochiai hadn't gone off to Chunichi, he wouldn't have become the Dragons manager in the last few years, and then where would we be?

In some ways, Japan is fortunate that its baseball league is so much younger than the MLB, and thus many of its legends are still alive and still contributing to the game in one way or the other. Thus it's a very sad day when we lose one of them.

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