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I knew I was on my way to a special Japan Series Saturday when several people on my jam-packed Japan Airlines flight were wearing Hanshin Tigers jerseys. There was one Hiyama 24, a couple of Imaoka 7s and several Igawa 29s.

The Series atmosphere became more apparent during the cab ride from Fukuoka Airport to my downtown hotel.

The city was bedecked with pennants bearing the Daiei Hawks logo, and vendors selling Hanshin Tigers goods were all over the streets.

The 54th Japan Series is being played by two teams with a certain purpose, an extra incentive to win.

The Hawks are performing under the cloud of a business slump being suffered by their parent company, supermarket operator Daiei Inc.

Knowing the club may be sold, they want to win while they’re still the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks.

For the Hanshin team, stung by the announcement on the eve of the series opener that manager Senichi Hoshino would resign after the final game next week, it was “Win one for Skipper.”

“It would be great to win (the series) and give (Hoshino) a goodbye present,” said American first baseman George Arias.

Batting coach Tom O’Malley agreed the Hanshin players would be going all out to secure a victory for the departing manager.

“He’s done a great job in the two years he’s managed the team, and he’s the one who brought me here,” said O’Malley, a Tigers player from 1991-1994 and the MVP in the 1995 Japan Series while with the Yakult Swallows.

O’Malley said, however, Hoshino’s resignation due to high blood pressure and other health problems was not a complete surprise.

“There were signs throughout the season he was having trouble,” said the hitting coach.

“He fell asleep on the bench and fainted during one game against the Giants.

“When the doctor says to quit or risk your life, you do what you have to do.”

Meanwhile, the Hawks, confident they will prevail, have already ordered printing of T-shirts that say “Nippon Series 2003 Champions” and list all the team and Pacific League records set this season. They will also boast, “FDH won the season series against all teams in the Pacific League.”

If they win one more against Hanshin, the players will be wearing “Golden Hawks” tees at their post-series beer bash victory celebation.

If Daiei loses, the shirts go out with the trash.

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