Name (Japanese): 赤星 憲広
Hometown: Kariya City, Chiba Prefecture
Date of Birth: April 10, 1976
Position: Center Field
Height: 170 cm (5’7”)
Weight: 66 kg (145 lbs)
Wore #: 53
Drafted by: Hanshin Tigers, 2000 Draft (Round 4)
Made Tigers Debut on: March 30, 2001
Retired as Player in: 2009
Website (Official): Red Star 53
Website (Baseball Club): Red Star Baseball Club
Career Achievements/Awards: Stolen Base Champ (2001-05); Rookie of the Year (2001); All-CL Team (2003, 2005); Golden Glove Award (2001, 2003-06, 2008); Player of the Month (April 2005); Golden Spirit Award (2004); All-Star (2003, 2005-06); 1000th Career Hit (9/14/07); 1000th Career Game (8/26/08); 350th Career Stolen Base (10/12/08); Most Plate Appearances in a Season (689 in 2005); Most Consecutive At Bats Without Home Run (2528 – June 12, 2005 – retirement)
Norihiro Akahoshi was born in Chiba on April 10, 1976. As a youngster, his natural athletic ability enabled him to excel in all sports without putting forth a full effort. Though he started playing soccer first, he was deeply interested in baseball because his father was coaching a local youth team. His father, however, forbade his son to take up the sport until he stopped coaching. He continued playing soccer until that time came, at which point he took up both sports. Upon entering the sixth grade, he was named the baseball team captain, and felt he could no longer juggle two sports, so he quit playing soccer and devoted his time more to baseball.
Akahoshi states that he really came to life when he joined the softball club at his junior high school. For the first time in his life, he encountered a player that was better than him. He actually had to put in an effort on the field for the first time. He played the infield during his first two years before converting to pitcher in his third year. When it came time to choose a high school, he went against the grain, choosing a small publicly-funded school instead of a private school with a prestigious baseball program. After all, he had grown tired of being able to succeed with little effort. He wanted to lead an underdog to the Koshien tournaments. And lead them he did. Once he switched to the left side of the plate (on a coach’s recommendation), he used his speed to get on base quickly, steal second and third, and score on squeeze plays. During his high school years, he twice led his team to the national tournament, but both times committed a costly error that led to his team’s early demise – once as a second baseman, once as a shortstop.
His untimely fielding miscues continued into his university years, as he would commit another error with Asia University during the all-Japan tournament, this time resulting in his team’s 1-0 defeat. Incidentally, Akahoshi got some notice from pro scouts in his high school days, but was also told that his diminutive size would be a barrier to his success. He chose to gain experience and size in university instead of aiming for the pros at age 18. Despite experiencing success at the university level (an all-Japan championship in his senior year, 45 career stolen bases, a .279 batting average), he still heard the same reports – that his lack of size would hinder his chances of making it as a professional.
He chose to work at East Japan Railway Company and play on their company baseball team, despite offers from more prestigious baseball programs at other companies. The reason: he wanted to ensure himself a solid career outside of baseball in case things did not work out. He excelled for the team, and in 1999, was named as a potential player for the national team at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. He took part in workouts with the Chiba Lotte Marines that year, and before heading to the Olympics, also participated in Hanshin Tigers training sessions. Then manager Katsuya Nomura highly regarded his speed, running ability and defense. This would be the first time Akahoshi believed he still had a chance to become a professional player. He was, in fact, chosen in the fourth round of the 2000 draft by Nomura’s Tigers, but would need to work on his hitting – his lack of power was seen as an obstacle to his getting regular playing time.
Any time he found himself on the bench that rookie year, he would sit near the manager, where he learned the ABCs of the game. He recorded his first career hit on March 31 against the Giants – a drag bunt – and his first stolen base four days later against the Carp. It would be the first of many in his shortened career. He would start to play full-time in May, entrenching himself in the 2-slot and playing center field. At one point, he would record hits in 12 consecutive games, which is the most by a rookie in club history. By year’s end, he recorded 39 stolen bases – fourth highest total ever for a rookie. It was enough to win the stolen base title, becoming the first Tiger since Yoshio Yoshida (1956), and the first Tiger rookie since Shosei Go (1944) to win it. This would be enough to give him Rookie of the Year, becoming the first player in league history to win both titles in his rookie year. On top of this, he won his first of six Golden Gloves.
His sophomore season was not as easy as the first. On April 18, he would foul a ball off his right leg, and due to a lack of protective wear (he thought it hindered his speed), broke his right tibia, missing three months of action. Still, in just 78 games, he recorded 26 stolen bases to lead the league for the second straight season. Then in his third season, his position in center was threatened when the team acquired free agent Tomoaki Kanemoto from the Carp. With Osamu Hamanaka and Shinjiro Hiyama also playing outfield, it would be tough for him to play regularly. However, part of Senichi Hoshino’s plan was to have Akahoshi hit second and Kanemoto third. The move proved to be a great one, as Kanemoto’s patience at the plate led to countless steal opportunities for the speedy Akahoshi. (Incidentally, 240 of his career 381 stolen bases came on either the first or second pitch of his teammate’s at bat.) Once again he would lead the league in stolen bases, but the highlight of the season – and perhaps his whole career – would take place on September 15. With the bases loaded and the score tied in the bottom of the ninth (one out), Akahoshi would take advice from Hoshino and step into the batter’s box. One pitch was all it took – and the man with “no power” drove a ball over the heads of the drawn-in outfield to bring home the winning run. With a Yakult Swallows loss later that day, it would end up being the pennant-clinching hit for the Tigers. By season’s end he had his first career .300+ season, and he also boasted a perfect fielding record in 2003, winning his second career Golden Glove in the process.
The very next season, after taking a pitch to the face in April, Akahoshi would suffer through the worst slump of his career, which could be attributed to his fear of inside pitches. Through the help of the coaching staff and a timely hit on July 17th, Akahoshi overcame the fear and ended the season on a tear. He stole a ridiculous 41 bases in the final 50 games of the season and tallied a season-best 64. However, the team’s record did not reflect his base stealing prowess, and the Red Star decided his game and focus needed a shift the next season. Instead of concentrating solely on stolen bases, he would put his focus more on reaching home base instead.
He would do that in 2005, scoring a ridiculous 119 runs while still stealing a league-high 60 bases. He won his lone player of the month in April. During interleague play in June, while attempting to steal a base, he collided with his opponent and broke three ribs, however, he continued to play through the injury, only missing a few games. He became the second player in league history (after Yutaka Fukumoto of the Hankyu Braves) to steal 60+ bases in three consecutive seasons, and made the all-star team for the second time in his career. This was also the season in which he started his Red Star Baseball Club (see link above) to give children a chance to play baseball despite countless community leagues shutting down. His Hanshin Tigers would win their second pennant in three seasons, but once again fell short in the Nippon Series.
Despite relatively good health in 2006, Akahoshi’s numbers took a dive. His stolen base total (35) was not enough to lead the league (for the first time in his career). He says other teams’ tactics improved, and that despite his timing not changing, he was thrown out more often than in previous seasons. He also changed his base running strategy, using his presence on the bases more as a distraction to opposing pitchers. He played nearly the entire year, but finished last in the league in slugging percentage, home runs and RBIs among qualified players. Feeling the pressure to perform, he went four straight nights without sleep at times.
His health woes would only get worse in the coming years. He says that he experienced pain in the 2006 season which continued to worsen in 2007. He felt a tingling sensation from his neck all the way down his left arm, and upon doctor’s examination, was diagnosed with a herniated disc in his neck. The pain was so strong that from this point to the end of his career, he says he never got more than 5 hours sleep in a night. On a diving catch attempt in May of that year, the impact with the ground jarred his neck, and it was later diagnosed that he was losing spinal marrow. He had a naturally narrow spinal cavity, and doctors warned him that any further damage could land him in a wheelchair. The club met with Akahoshi and warned him that if he chose to continue playing, it would be at his own risk and that another similar injury would result in the team terminating his contract. The nagging injuries would continue to affect his play, as he could no longer take as long of leads at first because of the pain he felt when returning to the base on pick-off attempts. He went a career-worst 32 consecutive games without a stolen base from late August until the end of the season. He did, however, manage to hit over .300 again and became the fastest player in club history to reach 1000 career hits. That offseason, he would work extra hard to strengthen his neck in order to prolong his career.
Akahoshi started the 2008 season in the leadoff slot, but was also used off the bench as the team tried to keep him healthy. The result was a full season, one in which he hit a career-best .317 and led the league in runs scored with 94. He also fell just one stolen base short of the league lead, ending with 41. However, he did tie the club record of 350 stolen bases (held by Yoshio Yoshida) at season’s end. Unfortunately for the club, this was the season in which their huge Central League lead evaporated in the final months of the season. The shock of not winning the pennant or the stolen base crown left Akahoshi speechless.
His final season, 2009, was a tragic one. He started the season with pain in his right shoulder and a hernia. He took cortisone shots to alleviate the pain but on April 10 (his 33rd birthday) the pain in his right shoulder became unbearable and he placed himself on the disabled list. The pain got worse when he came back, spreading to his knees. He required even more painkillers just to play. On August 2 while heading for home base, he sprained his left ankle and was forced to miss 10 days. Then on September 12th, while trying to make a diving catch in the right center, he not only re-aggravated his herniated disc, but also suffered another injury to his spinal cord. Unable to move, he was carried off the field by the team trainer. He was still unable to move his arms and legs by the time they reached the hospital. Though motion in his limbs would return, he lost most of the sensation in his arms, but experienced sharp pain whenever he touched something. It would end his troubled season. The lone bright spot was that he broke the club’s stolen base record on April 4th and finished his career with the fifth highest total in league history, and by far the top for any player this century.
Despite his desire to continue playing, the club held strong to its word. It would not renew his contract. Akahoshi went to several doctors around the country, and finally realized the severity of his injury. A doctor did give him conditional permission to continue playing, but the club would not honor their player’s desire to pursue a comeback. Despite offers from other clubs to give him a look, Akahoshi (who had free agent rights) did not desire to play for anyone but the Tigers. His career would be over at age 33.
Akahoshi is now a play-by-play announcer for Hanshin Tigers games and is also a sports analyst. During his playing career, from 2003 until his retirement, he donated one wheelchair to hospitals for every base that he stole – a total of 301 over seven seasons. Akahoshi has been offered coaching positions with the organization (both Yutaka Wada in 2011 and Tomoaki Kanemoto in 2015 approached him), but because of health reasons, he has never accepted them.
Side Note: I saw Norihiro Akahoshi at the Hanshin Tigers 2016 spring training camp. He is great at analyzing the game and has a wonderful personality, desiring to please fans even to this day. He endured a line of more than 50 people who wanted his autograph, even reminding the fans that they should be seeking active players’ signatures. When one fan asked him how his health was, he replied, “Terrible. It has never been good.” We at H-TEN hope with all our hearts that he makes a full recovery.