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Farewell games in Japan usually teary affairs

by Wayne Graczyk

There was a news item saying the New York Yankees were considering signing Hideki Matsui to a one-day contract so he can officially retire as a major leaguer with that club. The Jan. 10 Kyodo report quoted Yankees team co-owner Hal Steinbrenner as saying the team might also invite Matsui “to throw out the first pitch at a game as a token of appreciation for his seven years of service with the Yankees.”

There was no indication in the article of when either the contract signing or first-pitch throwing might take place, but the idea is a reminder of how different Matsui’s major league “sayonara” might be as compared to the way most Japanese players bow out after lengthy careers at home.

Hideo Nomo never had an “intai jiai” (retirement game) in Japan because he left the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1995 after five outstanding seasons in Osaka, then went on to a memorable career in the majors with several clubs. Presumably, Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki will also never have the retirement ceremonies in Japan they would have had, had they stayed in their own country.

The intai jiai is a truly typical Japanese gesture to honor a player leaving the game, and it is not limited only to superstars. Players with mediocre careers have been honored by teams for their service and dedication.

The clubs also use the occasion as a public relations gimmick and a reason to sell a few more tickets to an otherwise meaningless game, usually at the end of a season after the pennant races and league standings have been decided.

Of course the retiree makes his last appearance as an active player, taking that final at-bat or throwing that last pitch, often with tears in his eyes, as he realizes the end has come to something he’s done since grade school days.

If he isn’t crying on the field during the game, he will surely start bawling afterwards during a ceremony while trying to give a farewell speech to the hometown fans who have stayed in order to hear what he has to say. He would be speaking into a stand microphone set up near home plate or the pitcher’s mound, holding bouquets of flowers received from his teammates and the opposing squad.

The player’s wife and kids, who probably did not attend many — if any — games during dad’s career, can be seen in the stands wiping the moisture out of their eyes and off their cheeks.

The No. 1 most memorable occasion is without a doubt the final appearance as an active player of former Giants great Shigeo Nagashima on Oct. 14, 1974. In his last game, an afternoon affair at Korakuen Stadium, the Giants defeated the Chunichi Dragons who had previously clinched the Central League pennant and broke Yomiuri’s nine-year stranglehold on the CL and Japan Series titles.

Following the game in which Nagashima grounded into a double play in his final plate appearance, there was a retirement ceremony described as “elaborate,” as the man almost everyone considers the most popular player ever in Japan made a tearful and dramatic speech against a twilight background of the stadium scoreboard with lineups and the line score still illuminated.

When current Yomiuri manager Tatsunori Hara retired in 1995 at age 37, a large crowd turned out at the Tokyo Dome in October to watch a game against the Hiroshima Carp that had no attraction except for Hara’s exit. When it came time for Hara’s last hurrah, Carp manager Toshiyuki Mimura brought in 40-year-old, 19-year veteran left-hander Yutaka Ono to pitch to the retiring star, thereby adding to the fans’ delight.

Ono and Hara had faced each other many times over the years, and it was fitting Hara’s last swing should be against a familiar rival. Following the confrontation, Ono and Hara bowed to each other and tipped their caps as the crowd cheered wildly. Flowers were presented; tears were shed on the field, in the dugout and in the stands.

Lesser-known players are also sometimes recognized with a ceremonial intai jiai. In October of 2005, Yomiuri announced the release of infielders Daisuke Motoki and Koji Goto. Neither had seen much varsity action that year, but both were called up from the Giants farm team to play the season’s final Central League contest, so their past contributions to the club could be publicly acknowledged.

The Yakult Swallows did the same for relief pitcher Hirotoshi Ishii, the team’s highly rated closer (37 saves in 2005) who had attracted attention from major league scouts until his arm went bad in 2006. Ishii tried for five years to make a comeback, but he never pitched for Yakult’s first team again — until the final game of the 2011 season.

The Swallows public relations staff announced Ishii would be activated, and he would be called from the bullpen to take the mound one last time. There was nothing near a full-house crowd at Jingu Stadium that night, but a few thousand of the most ardent Yakult fans were there to see off Ishii.

Last autumn, retiring superstars Tomoaki Kanemoto of the Hanshin Tigers and Hiroki Kokubo of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks were honored, not only at their home ballparks, but also in other league cities as they made their final around-the-country appearances in visiting stadiums.

It will be interesting to see what the Yankees do with Matsui, and if the Yomiuri Giants also decide to honor in some way his retirement; maybe not with an intai jiai, but with a day or night when the fans can officially say good-bye.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk: at Wayne@JapanBall.com