Retirement games, or “intai shiai,” are common in Japanese baseball, but the one that took place in Sendai on Aug. 9 was a most unusual occurrence.
Yokohama BayStars closer Kazuhiro Sasaki made his final appearance as an active player, going out in a blaze of glory but not without controversy and some criticism over how, where and when his last trip to the mound took place.
Normally, a superstar veteran player, wrapping us his career, is honored in October at his team’s final home game of the season after pennant races and league standings have been decided.
He takes the field in the late innings, facing a rival veteran player on the opposing team for an emotional encounter, and there is often a post-game ceremony where the player speaks to the crowd over the stadium’s public address system as the fans wave a tearful goodbye.
Sasaki’s last hurrah was different for three reasons: It came with two months remaining in the season while the BayStars are still in the pennant race, it happened at a Yokohama road game, and he took the mound early — in the second inning — of the game against the Yomiuri Giants.
In fact, the sequence of events that was to occur at Fullcast Stadium Miyagi that night was technically a secret, but the plan unfolded as details were “leaked” to the press and public in the days, hours and minutes leading up to Sasaki’s final trip to the mound.
Sasaki had been out of action for three months with a variety of injuries that made him ineffective as a relief pitcher, and he said he would be retiring at the end of the season, but Japanese sports newspapers predicted on Aug. 3 the “Daimajin” would throw his last pitch in his home town of Sendai where, coincidentally, the BayStars would be playing as visitors against the Giants.
This idea reportedly drew some complaints from Yomiuri, the home team, and critics began to wonder how Sasaki could be brought into the game as the closer in the ninth inning of a meaningful game.
What if it became a one-sided score and there was no save chance?
Or what if he came in with a one-run lead and blew the save?
What assurance was there he would be facing a veteran hitter in the Giants lineup?
Eventually, a scheme was thought up to eliminate those concerns. Word spread through the media on the field prior to the game about what was to happen.
Ken Kadokura, the scheduled Yokohama starting pitcher, was going to delay his work call. Instead, Yuji Hata was to be the starter but pitch only to the first five Yomiuri hitters.
Then, Sasaki would come in to face his rival since high school, Kazuhiro Kiyohara, the 37-year-old, 19-year veteran Yomiuri slugger.
Sasaki appeared on the field at 4:29 p.m. during the BayStars batting practice session, posed for photographers, spoke for a few moments with a group of reporters, then retreated to the Yokohama locker room at 4:42.
The game began at 6:01 p.m. Neither team scored in the first inning and, at 6:17 while the BayStars were batting in the top of the second, TV cameras showed Sasaki warming up in his team’s bullpen.
At 6:31 with Kiyohara in the on-deck circle, Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe led off the bottom of the second with a single. As Kiyohara was being announced as the next batter, Yokohama manager Kazuhiko Ushijima emerged from the third-base dugout and informed plate umpire Fumihiro Yoshimoto he was making a pitching change.
The Fullcast crowd of 18,957 went crazy when Sasaki’s name was called over the P.A. and gave a standing ovation for the guy making his first appearance in Sendai since Sept. 1, 1998, the year he helped the BayStars win the Japan Series, and he won the Central League MVP award.
One fan who had already downed at least five lemon squash hi-balls yelled toward Ushijima in a loud, obnoxious voice, “What? What are you doing? It’s too early for Sasaki!” Apparently it was not too early to be drunk.
Sasaki completed his eight warmup tosses from the mound, and Kiyohara took his place in the batter’s box.
As the confrontation began, it soon became evident Kiyohara was the more emotional of the two. He later said he had not slept the previous night in anticipation of the at-bat.
The first pitch was a ball, then a strike and another strike.
Between deliveries, TV cameras focused on close-ups of the two adversaries; Sasaki drenched with sweat, his face showing signs of realization the next pitch could be the last of his long and stellar career with the BayStars and Seattle Mariners.
Kiyohara was red-eyed, and tears began to roll down his cheeks, colliding with some graying stubble on his mature face. Perhaps his thoughts were of his own retirement coming in the not-too-distant future.
At 6:42, the drama climaxed as Sasaki delivered one of his trademark quick-dipping forkballs off the outside corner. Kiyohara swung and missed, then called time and met Sasaki halfway between the pitcher’s mound and home plate for a handshake and an emotional hug.
Kadokura relieved Sasaki, and our drinking buddy ordered another lemon-hi with which to toast Sasaki’s strikeout performance.
Following the game which the Giants won, 1-0, fans called for Sasaki to make an on-field speech, but the awkwardness of Yokohama being the visiting team prevented that.
Sasaki left quietly through a stadium side exit. The next day he was again removed from the BayStars active roster, this time permanently.
According to Nikkan Sports, Sasaki threw 13,583 pitches in his pro career for the BayStars and Mariners.
He will be remembered as one of the all-time great closers in baseball history on both sides of the Pacific, and his “sayonara” game will be recalled as one of the most memorable, if not bizarre, in Japanese baseball nostalgia.
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