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Final countdown under way for Ishii, Kokubo

by Wayne Graczyk

Infielder Takuro Ishii of the Hiroshima Carp has announced his retirement as an active player effective at the end of the 2012 season. Ishii joins infielder Hiroki Kokubo of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks who will also hang up his spikes when his club concludes its schedule in October or November.

Both veterans will no doubt be honored by their teams staging the Japanese tradition of the “intai jiai,” or retirement game, in which their final regular-season plate appearances will take place. If the timing is right, the final season standings are already decided and the game situation falls into place, each will make that final trip to the batter’s box to face a pitcher on the opposing team who was a rival throughout their respective careers.

The 42-year-old Ishii is one of the few remaining active players from the 1998 Yokohama BayStars’ Japan Series-winning ballclub. He was the shortstop and leadoff hitter in that “Machine Gun Dasen” lineup, a spark plug who got things going night after night during Yokohama’s last glory season 14 years ago.

He joined the then-Yokohama Taiyo Whales in 1989 as an undrafted player and a pitcher but was later converted to an infielder. Ishii played for the team through 2008, and moved to the Carp for whom he played mostly as a reserve the last four seasons. In 2006, he joined the Meikyukai Golden Players Club when he knocked out his 2,000th career hit.

This season, Ishii was listed as a player-coach, and he will most likely remain on the staff with Hiroshima in 2013 or become a coach with another club — or perhaps work as a TV-radio game commentator.

Kokubo also enjoyed a lengthy career with the Fukuoka Daiei and Softbank Hawks, except for three seasons (2004-06) with the Yomiuri Giants. In his second season, 1995, he won the Pacific League home run title, albeit with one of the lowest totals (28) by a homer king in Japan. He was also the MVP in the 2011 Japan Series after leading Softbank to victory over the Chunichi Dragons.

At age 40, Kokubo rapped out career hit No. 2,000 this year, but injuries have nagged him throughout the 2012 campaign, and he too announced this season would be his last as an active player. It is expected he, like Ishii, will remain in the world of baseball as a coach or a broadcaster.

In 1998, Kokubo was involved in a tax fraud scandal along with several other Japanese players, and his season was limited to just 17 games.

Diamond Dust: Are you surprised the NPB players union finally decided to join the World Baseball Classic?

Not me. I’ve mentioned before — more than once — in this column, I thought the group would come around.

The Japanese side delayed about getting into the first WBC in 2006, but eventually joined and won it. It balked too in 2009 but finally said yes and won that one as well. Same thing this time, although more drawn out and stretched almost to the final deadline. But it is in.

Major League Baseball vice president for Asia Jim Small and Toshimasa Shimada, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters executive director and chairman of the NPB Committee on International Relations, among others, are to be commended for their tireless efforts in persuading the Japanese players to come around, and the event will now have its credibility increased to the level where it should be.

Will Samurai Japan emerge as tournament champions for the third time in 2013?

That remains to be seen, but I would imagine when the following World Baseball Classic comes around again in 2017, we will go through the same series of hesitation, negotiations and finally agreement to play. …

A recent Kyodo News report says attendance is down in Japanese baseball this year, with the Central League losing 0.5 percent and the Pacific League reduced 3.3 percent from last season.

The CL-leading Yomiuri Giants were listed as the only team drawing more than 40,000 fans at home games in 2012, averaging 41,042 spectators for a 10.2 percent increase.

The biggest drop in the CL is the one suffered by the fifth-place Hanshin Tigers, whose attendance is down by 9 percent. The Tigers home game average is just 38,036, probably 5,000 less than Hanshin would get as a pennant contender.

Even games against the archrival Yomiuri Giants at Koshien Stadium last week drew only about 34,000 to 36,000 fans. Normally, the Hanshin-Kyojin card packs more than 45,000 into the old ballpark in Hyogo Prefecture between Osaka and Kobe.

In the Pa League, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, masters of promotions including jersey giveaways, have increased their attendance by 5.5 percent, averaging 33,651 fans per game. The Chiba Lotte Marines have the biggest attendance decline in the PL at 8.8 percent.

As we approach the end of the regular season, however, we should be seeing better attendance figures with the CL playoff-contending Hiroshima Carp filling many more seats at their home stadium, and the tight, topsy-turvy Pacific League pennant race is going down to the wire.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com