Michael Wayne Reinbach was born on August 6, 1949 in San Diego, California. He attended Granite Hills High School and would go on to become the school’s first graduate to play Major League Baseball. Despite just twelve games of experience at the top level and relatively low expectations upon signing with the Tigers, he went on to become one of the most beloved imports in team history.
Drafted by the New York Yankees in 1967, Reinbach chose instead to go to college at UCLA. Three years later, he was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Orioles, and his journey towards baseball stardom was under way. After two years in low minor league circuits (1970 in the Florida State League with Miami and 1971 in the Texas League with Dallas-Fort Worth), Reinbach had a season for the ages in 1972. Playing for Asheville of the Southern League, Reinbach would lead the league in 7 offensive categories, including all three Triple Crown stats (.346 average, 30 home runs and 109 RBIs in 136 games played). He moved on to the Rochester Red Wings of the International League in 1973, but was limited to just 93 games (he spent over a month on the disabled list with a broken right ankle) of action. Still, he received an invitation to the Baltimore Orioles spring training the following year.
Though he made his debut on the major league team that season, he only appeared in a dozen games, hitting .250 (5 for 20) with 2 RBIs and 2 runs. He spent the remainder of the season in the Orioles’ minor league system, once again playing for the Wings, but with middling results. His time in Rochester continued in 1975, but he never again got a call up to the majors. The Orioles signed Reggie Jackson that offseason, and it was clear that Reinbach would not get a fair shot to win back right field. Before the 1976 season, he reached an agreement with the Hanshin Tigers of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).
Legend has it that Reinbach, curious as to what part of Japan “Hanshin” was located in, broke out a map and was exasperated at how small a town he might have signed on with, since he could not locate it on any map he checked. (Like many people in the pre-Internet days, he did not know that Japanese teams took their name from the sponsoring company and not the city in which they were located.) He arrived in Japan in the spring 1976 along with more highly-touted Hal Breeden, a hulk of a man who had a much more impressive MLB resume. According to Tigers legend Masayuki Kakefu (who was entering his third season with the team at the time), Reinbach looked completely lost at the plate during spring training. Kakefu says he cannot remember a single ball that Reinbach hit out of the cages that reached the outfield grass. However, coach (and former Tigers star) Hirokazu Yamauchi worked endlessly with Reinbach throughout camp, and when they were done, his hands were calloused like none Kakefu had ever seen before. (These words come from a man who was notorious for practicing long hours after all his teammates had left the field.)
Despite the low expectations on him, Reinbach performed just fine. He made up for his lack of raw skills by wowing fans with daring head-first slides into first base, brave catch attempts in the outfield, and the most timely of hits when games were on the line. (Most imports in these days came over to Japan with a cocky attitude and looking down on Japanese baseball. Reinbach’s constant and earnest effort in practice and in games earned him respect from fans and teammates alike.) He formed part of a formidable cleanup lineup that included Kakefu, Breeden and catcher Koichi Tabuchi. His first year ended with him hitting 22 home runs, and he followed that up with a career-best .325 average in 1977. He experienced a bit of a slump in 1978, but his popularity among fans never waned.
Reinbach’s most successful season came in 1979. Before we talk about the biggest moment of the year, a little background. The most sought-after prospect in the 1978 draft was a pitcher named Suguru Egawa. The Tigers won the right to negotiate a contract with him, but through some devious loopholing by the Yomiuri Giants, Egawa forsook the draft and signed with the Tokyo team. Tigers fans already had reason enough to dislike the Giants, but this made things even worse, and Egawa was henceforth Lex Luthor to Hanshin fans. Incidentally, the Egawa signing became a scandal of national proportions, and was even discussed in national congress. The end result was that the Tigers were entitled to Egawa’s negotiating rights, but since he clearly did not want to play with anyone but the Giants, they were forced to trade him to their cross-country rivals for pitcher Shigeru Kobayashi. The Giants would also not be allowed to use Egawa in game action for the first two months of the 1979 season.
Egawa’s first game, June 2 at Koraku Stadium, would be against those very Hanshin Tigers, and it garnered the attention of the nation. Egawa did not disappoint, as he clamped down on the Tigers for the first six innings of the game. With a one-run lead in the top of the seventh and two men on base, Egawa would face Mike Reinbach in his first real pinch. The result would have Hanshin fans in tears of joy and earn him a place in team folklore: a come-from-behind three-run home run, giving the Tigers a victory and shaming Egawa and the Giants with a loss. Despite the huge accomplishment, Reinbach remained humble, saying, “He threw really well in the face of such immense pressure, especially for a rookie.”
Along with his superior play that season, the home run propelled Reinbach to become just the fourth foreign player (and first foreign Tiger) in NPB history to be voted to start in the all-star game. His 1979 season would also end with Reinbach being chosen to the All-Central League team. His big homer remained in fans’ memories so strongly that he was voted in as a starter in the all-star the next season as well. His aggressive playing style led to several injuries, most of which he played through, but Reinbach was released after the 1980 season in part because of declining performance due to those hurts. Fans were so outraged by the club’s decision that over 1,000 called the team’s office complaining about the move.
Upon returning to the United States, Reinbach changed careers, working in the home computer industry for much of the 1980s. He came across many Japanese people in his line of work, and always asked them what part of Japan they were from. If they were from the Kansai region, he would always ask how the Tigers were doing. His love for the team never faded despite his disappointment at being released by the team before he was ready to leave.
Tragedy struck suddenly on May 20, 1989. Driving too fast on the winding, hilly roads of southern California, his car hurtled off a cliff, sending him to a tragic early death. His passenger was seriously injured, but managed a full recovery after some time in the hospital. Mike, a single child, was survived by his ex-wife and her siblings, with whom he was close, and his son, Brian.
News of Reinbach’s death reached Japan but was only recorded in a small corner of the newspaper 9 months after the fact. (The newspaper mistakenly stated that he passed on in November, not May.) A popular late-night TV program received a request months later to investigate the truth behind the report that was in the newspaper. Below is a clip of the TV show. His love of the Tigers and the fans’ love of him come through strongly. Tear-jerker warning: get some tissues ready.
Rest in peace, Michael Reinbach. You hold a special place in the hearts of many Hanshin Tigers fans all across Japan and worldwide.