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Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

'Boomer' came up short in latest bid for Hall of Fame


It was a good week for the Hiroshima Carp family as two former pitchers were elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Manabu Kitabeppu and the late Tsunemi Tsuda garnered enough votes to enter Tokyo's version of Cooperstown. Their induction ceremony will take place at an All-Star Game at Kyocera Osaka Dome this coming summer.

Kitabeppu picked up 257 votes, while Tsuda got 237, one above the minimum 236 required to get in. The third-place vote-getter pulled in 223, just 13 shy of the cutoff line, and who do you suppose it was?

Former Hankyu Braves, Orix BlueWave and Fukuoka Daiei Hawks slugger Greg "Boomer" Wells was No. 3.

Gregory DeWayne Wells was a prolific slugger, one of those "4A" players too good for Triple-A, but not able to crack a major league team's lineup, usually because a star player mans the position he plays. Wells was ready to break into the big leagues in the early 1980s but for whatever reason just did not make it after brief stints with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1981 and the Minnesota Twins in '82.

Instead, the Pacific League Hankyu Braves brought him, at the age of 29, to Japan in 1983, and he went on to play 10 seasons with Hankyu, the Orix Braves and BlueWave and the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, retiring after the 1992 season.

Wells was one of many foreign players in Japan who went by his first name or a nickname, and he was registered simply as "Boomer." Most Japanese fans who saw him play during his stellar decade-long PL career probably don't know his real name.

Boomer was made to play in Japan, from his 213-cm frame to his picture-perfect swing to his skill at playing the first base position to his attitude about playing ball in the Far East. He loved living in western Japan and was never intimidated by Japanese pitchers and the breaking balls they threw, though the opposing hurlers may have been intimidated by him.

One of his trademarks was the habit of hitching up the short sleeves on his jersey for better comfort while swinging, but it also exposed the muscles that made him one of the strongest power hitters in Japanese baseball history.

I can recall seeing him play a game against the Lotte Orions one hot summer night in August of 1984 in Fukuoka, where he absolutely crushed three line drive home runs, one of which carried completely out of Heiwadai Stadium.

He did not try to out-think the opposing hurlers but just went up to the plate hacking away, and hack he did. Over his 10-year career in Japan, Boomer won the Triple Crown in '84, his second year in the country, helping the Braves win the PL pennant by hitting .355 with 37 home runs and 130 RBIs and being named the league MVP.

He also won league RBI titles in 1987 with 119, in 1989 with 124, and 1992 with 97, and another batting championship, hitting .322 in '89. There were three 40-homer seasons as well; he hit a career-high 42 in 1986, and 40 in '87 and again in '89. His lifetime-in-Japan statistics include a .317 batting average, 277 homers and 901 RBIs.

Boomer might have played an 11th season in Japan in 1993, but the Hawks, about ready to move from Heiwadai Stadium into the newly constructed Fukuoka Dome, decided to clean house, changing managers and foreign players.

"Tabuchi wanted me back," said Boomer, referring to Koichi Tabuchi, the Daiei manager in 1992. "But they let him go, and they let me go." Wells did return to Japan, however, spending the 1994 season with his old Orix BlueWave as a batting coach, giving advice to — among others — some guy named Ichiro Suzuki.

A native of McIntosh, Alabama, Boomer now lives in Cartersville, Georgia, and spoke to us by phone last week. He had no idea he had narrowly missed gaining entrance to the Japanese HOF and expressed some disappointment.

"I hadn't heard about it," he said. "But I always thought I would have a chance to make it. I was the first foreigner to win a Triple Crown in Japan, I left as the best foreign right-handed batter of all-time and set a lot of team records that are still standing, except for those broken by Ichiro."

Asked what he's doing now, Boomer said, "I'm retired, just cutting my grass and taking care of my 85-year-old mom and other family members. I visit my daughter, Mika, in Chicago. She's a grad student and working there."

He does stay in touch with the game, too. "Sometimes I do a baseball clinic for kids with (former Nankai Hawks player, 1986) Danny Goodwin," he said.

Unfortunately, according to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum located at Tokyo Dome, this was Wells' final year of eligibility for election by the Players Selection Committee, because he has been inactive as a player for 20 years. However, he may be considered in 2012 in the Expert Section if selected by the Screening Committee to be included among the 10 candidates in that section.

Wells played during an unforgettable time in Japanese baseball history when each team was allowed only two non-Japanese players, and there were some great ones: Randy Bass, Warren Cromartie, Leron and Leon Lee, Bobby Marcano, Ken Macha, Ralph Bryant, Bob Horner, Brad "The Animal" Lesley, Reggie Smith, Cecil Fielder, Bill Gullickson, among others.

If there was a Baseball Bullet-In Hall of Fame, they would all be members.

Maybe we should start one.

* * *

Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com



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