When a young Dave Hilton strode to the batter's box at Jingu Stadium on Opening Day in 1978, little did he know that his actions over the next few minutes would set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately help create a Japanese literary giant.
"It was very exciting that day, Opening Day, in my first year in Japan," recalled Hilton, now 61, by e-mail from his home in Arizona. "I was playing shortstop and batting leadoff (for the Yakult Swallows). I loved everything about Tokyo, the fans, and playing baseball in Japan."
Hilton, a former member of the San Diego Padres, cracked a double to start the game that day at Jingu. In the bleachers, sipping a beer and taking in the game, was a 29-year-old Swallows fan named Haruki Murakami.
As Hilton motored into second with his leadoff double, Murakami was suddenly struck with a moment of clarity. He claims it was at that point that he knew his calling.
While attempts to reach Murakami for this article were unsuccessful--the author rarely grants interviews with the media--he did write about the inspiration provided by Hilton in his 2008 memoir, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:"
"I can pinpoint the exact moment when I first thought I could write a novel. It was around 1:30 in the afternoon of April 1, 1978. I was at Jingu Stadium that day, alone in the outfield drinking beer and watching the game. Jingu Stadium was within walking distance of my apartment at the time, and I was a fairly big Yakult Swallows fan.... As usual for the Swallows, the stadium wasn't very crowded. It was the season opener and they were taking on the Hiroshima Carp ... in the bottom of the (first) inning the leadoff batter for the Swallows was Dave Hilton, a young American player new to the team. Hilton got a hit down the left-field line. The crack of the bat meeting ball on the sweet spot echoed through the stadium. Hilton easily rounded first base and pulled up to second. And it was at that exact moment that a thought struck me: You know what? I could try writing a novel. I can still remember the wide-open sky, the feel of the new grass, the satisfying crack of the bat. Something flew down from the sky at that instant, and whatever it was, I accepted it."
Murakami goes on to write about then heading over to the Kinokuniya store in Shinjuku to purchase a stack of writing paper and a Sailor fountain pen. He says that by the fall of 1978 he had penned a 200-page handwritten manuscript which would become his first novel, "Hear the Wind Sing."
Murakami would go on to write several bestsellers, translated into some 40 languages. His work would garner him awards and international praise.
Hilton, for his part, said he found out about their connection through his cousin.
"I was not aware initially, but in the late '90s my cousin was flying to the United States from England, where she was living, and read the story about him (and the game) in a magazine that was on the plane," said Hilton, who has never met Murakami but is familiar with his work.
"They lead one to thinking more deeply about life and the seemingly insignificant details of it," said Hilton, referring to a couple of Murakami books he has read.
Hilton would play two seasons for Yakult and then one more for the Hanshin Tigers before heading home to America. He coached in the majors with the Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants and Tampa Bay Rays and remains involved in the game to this day, running a baseball school in Arizona.
Hilton says it still seems somewhat bizarre to him that he has been linked so closely with a famed author he has never met.
"I am somewhat surprised," said the former ballplayer, who was born in Uvalde, Texas, population 14,928. "We work in different spheres, and his work is very prestigious."
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