I have to admit I wasn't entirely sure exactly what this one means, and I certainly have plenty of random stories that could fit this.
I mean, is it the moment you took a bad impression to a good one? I actually had a bad impression of Daisuke Miura like 10-15 years ago, until I saw him at a Fan Fest and saw what a great guy he was with fans, especially kids, then read about all of the humanitarian work he did, and then after the earthquake he was tweeting about being at stations with collection boxes, and so on. The kicker was when he turned down a FA offer from Hanshin because "I think the fans need me more in Yokohama". And now Bancho is kicking butt at the age of 41 and I still think it's awesome and I still want him to succeed and I still think he wears too much hair gel.
Is it just the moment you took notice of a guy? Moments like when Naoto Inada ran into the stands to get a foul ball during the 2006 playoffs, "running as if I was a hungry bull and it was a piece of food"? Or Hichori wearing some crazy outfit to an All-Star game? Ryota Imanari making me crack up at Fighters Kamagaya Fanfest 2008? Hiroshi Kisanuki giving out baseball cards to fans in the outfield stands and then turning out to be a fellow train nerd?
Anyway, I stopped blogging for the most part way before I became known as a Yohei Kagiya fan among all the Fighters regulars, so I thought I'd bend this "becoming a fan of a player" theme and make this a Kagiya post! Yay!
The first time I saw Kagiya play was Koshien 2008. I wasn't there in person, but I was watching on TV before heading to my eikaiwa job every day at 1pm. Kagiya was the ace pitcher for Hokkai high school, from Hokkaido, and they were playing Toho HS, from Aichi, a geographical matchup much like the Fighters-Dragons Japan Series. I was just going to watch the first few batters before heading off to my train, and then Yusuke Yamada took the very first pitch off of Kagiya and hit it into the stands in right-center field. I typed into the japanesebaseball.com chatroom at the time,
: HOLY CRAP FIRST PITCH HOMERUN BY YAMADA OH MY GOD
: OH WAIT YOU ARE ALL 30 SECONDS BEHIND THE NHK FEED AREN'T YOU HOPE I DIDN'T RUIN THE GAME OOPS
I missed my train and was a few minutes late to work. It was memorable. Yamada came to Rikkio for college, I met him a few times, he was a nice kid, and sadly he never really got taller than his 166cm he was in high school and went to work for a properties rental company after graduation. So clearly, while Kagiya may have been the worse for their first interaction, he's done better overall in the grand scheme of things.
The next time I saw Kagiya play was his sophomore year at Chuo, in 2010. I came to Jingu to see Takahiro Fujioka pitch for Toyo, and stuck around for the Chuo-Aoyama game. Kagiya came in to pitch in the 5th inning, and my brain was trying to remember why he looked so familiar, and then I remembered who he was. (Especially when he gave up a home run to Aoyama captain Ko Shimazuru.) Even back then he still had a little yell he would do when he struck batters out.
I was actually somewhat of a Chuo fan in general at that point thanks to Kageyama, Nishime, Seiya Inoue, and even Sawamura and Yuhi Yamasaki. And then the next year I went to several of their games to watch Yosuke Shimabukuro pitch.
But then Shimabukuro got injured, and at the same time Kagiya was emerging as their ace. I went to several of his games in 2012 and charted him out and noted that he threw more first-pitch strikes than pretty much anyone else in the Tohto league. He still had the same calm but passionate demeanor, and he was still attacking batters, striking them out, throwing a great fastball, and still losing a ton of games because Chuo's team sucked.
I tried really hard to meet Kagiya his senior year but it never worked out, sadly. The Tohto league works a little bit different than Tokyo Big 6, especially being on weekdays (embarrassingly, when I got a photo with Shimabukuro, I had to ask another player on the Chuo team to take it, because I didn't know any of the other fans hanging out there).
Kagiya during his sophomore year at Chuo.
Kagiya during his senior year.
Holding Out For a Hero
After Ryota Imanari got traded to the Tigers, I spent the second half of 2012 looking for a new favorite Fighters player. Having your favorite player(s) is part of your identity as a baseball fan in Japan; people know me as a Fighters fan in general but in the grand scheme of all your Fighters fan friends, you need to be identified by which player's camp you're in. (It is not uncommon for someone to be described like "You know her, she's the Konta fan with the purple-letter jersey?") This is especially important for merchandise; during my 5 years wearing an Imanari jersey around I can't count how many people would give me Imanari pinbadges and other similar things. Even at Swallows games at Jingu, wearing my Kawabata jersey, a woman once came up to me like "I heard you were visiting! Welcome home! Here's some Shingo cards I saved for you." Similarly, I would save cards or pins for my friends who liked specific players as well.
So Kagiya got drafted by the Fighters and I decided, even before the 2013 season started: Kagiya was going to be my new guy. Not only was I already a fan of his from college, but being as he's from Hokkaido he was unlikely to get traded any time soon, and also, since he's awesome, he was likely to have an impact on the team.
Fighters Year 1 (2013)
I got a new uniform with kanji letters made in time for the first Tokyo Dome series of 2013 and ran into another person who also had a custom Kagiya kanji uniform. Whoa! Then I went to Kobe for a weekend and saw Kagiya's first pro win and well, that was the beginning of this crazy run.
Later that year when I was back in Japan I got extremely lucky and caught Kagiya outside the dorms at Kamagaya briefly and was stuttering like an idiot as I asked him to sign my uniform and if we could get a photo together. He had a bit of a "why is this girl freaking out" look on his face but I told him how I used to watch him at Chuo and was a huge fan of his, and then he was more like "wait, really?" and then smiled and thanked me for cheering for him and all that. I felt super-awkward but super-happy about it.
When I got back to Sapporo, a friend in Hokkaido gave me a Kagiya towel and some other cheering stuff (including the Sapporo-area newspapers from Kagiya's first win -- the only place in the country that had him on the front page, of course!), so I had something to hold up in the stands during the Lucky 7 but also before games to yell hi at him in the outfield. So by the end of 2013 I had solidly gotten most of the fans and Fighters players, Kagiya included, to recognize my new identity as "crazy Kagiya fangirl".
Our completely random and somewhat surprising but totally awesome Kagiya cheering section.
Kagiya and Kisanuki warming up before the game in Kobe, where Kagiya got his first pro win. Also the day I became a Kisanuki fan, but that's another story, maybe.
Finally met him! This is an awful picture of me but to be fair it was August and I had just gotten back that morning from a train trip to Hokkaido.
Hanging out at the Osaka Dome with my newly acquired Kagiya towel a week later.
Kagiya entering the game in the 11th inning of the longest game in Pacific League history.
Unfortunately, Kagiya gave up a 3-run homer to Akira Nakamura in the top of the 12th... the game ended shortly after midnight.
Fighters Year 2 (2014)
In the fall of 2014 I happened to make it to the final Kamagaya game on 9/23, which was both a national holiday and Kagiya's 24th birthday. Some friends snuck me in line with them near the front, so I got to do the "team high-five greeting" with everyone -- where basically, for the first ten minutes of fans flooding into the stadium, the entire team is out there high-fiving and saying hello to everyone. It's actually pretty comical if you've never seen this sort of thing before -- 40 baseball players and coaches in the concourse as a thousand fans filter past them into the stadium, so all the players have their hands held out and are high-fiving everyone and it's a big chorus of "konnichiwa," "ohayou gozaimasu," "ouen arigatou," etc as fans are flooded past the players, some of whom seem to actually be enjoying the entire thing (Hakumura), some of whom look like they're just amused and smirking at it all (Yukio Tanaka), some of whom definitely are grumpy just like "It's so lame that I have to be out here greeting you all just because I'm having a bad season (Yuki Saitoh), and some of whom are just like "holy crap this line goes on forever!" (the rookies) For me, it's kinda funny because I've met about 70% of the team at one point or another, so some players react to me like "WTF A WHITE GIRL!" and the rest are like "Oh hey it's you, good morning, long time no see".
Anyway, I'm making my way down the line, laughing, greeting, etc, and then I got to Kagiya, and he had the "whoa, it's you!"reaction so instead of just high-fiving him like the other players I stopped for a second, took his hand in both of mine, and said in English, "Kagiya-kun! Happy birthday!"
And he broke into a huge smile like "Oh! Thank you!!" and shook my hands.
Toshiyuki Yanuki, who was standing behind him, said something in Japanese like "Damn dude, it's your birthday? I didn't even know that."
Kagiya even pitched an inning, so it was cool to see him out there. The only thing is, the game went over 4 hours, and then there was a season-closing ceremony afterwards, and the last bus that leaves Kamagaya is around 5:12pm, so I pretty much had to bolt right after the game and couldn't catch up with any of the players.
And so on... (2015)
So this spring when I was back in Japan, I went to eight Fighters games; 7 ichi-gun, 1 ni-gun, and the Fighters won all but one of them. The last two games were home games at the Tokyo Dome. When the Fighters win a home game, the game heroes come out to the outfield cheering stands and throw signed baseballs into the crowd. At the Tokyo Dome, almost the entire team runs out onto the field and throws signed baseballs into the crowd.
The first game, I was in the front row. The first row almost never gets those signed balls because the players throw them into the stands pretty far. But the second game I was with a different group of friends in the stands, in the 6th row or so, and when the players came out I held my Kagiya towel up and yelled really loudly and he threw a ball almost right to me! That is, my friend two seats to the right caught the ball, and then someone else was like "I actually think he was throwing that to Deanna..."
Remember how I said that having "your player" is a really important thing? My friend was kinda like "OMG, of course he was, you should totally have this ball" and he gave it to me. I was like "Really? You sure?" and he said "Yeah, it'll make you happy when you are back in the USA."
I had to go look up what the kanji on the back of the ball meant. It's a a yojijukugo, a "four kanji idiom" of sorts, and says "a hundred cuts without bending", really meaning a kind of endurance. I found out that it's the baseball club slogan from Kagiya's high school team at Hokkai, basically. (In this year's Fighters Guide Book they had a photo of him and Hayao Segawa sitting in the Hokkai clubhouse, with that slogan written on the wall.)