Japanese baseball is in the season of goodbyes.
There are only a handful of games left for each of the 12 NPB clubs, and this is the time of year when teams and fans begin to bid farewell to some familiar faces.
No one plays the game forever. As the Hiroshima Carp’s Kris Johnson put it once, when speaking about 40-year-old veteran Hiroki Kuroda’s solid play, “this game is going to come to an end for you eventually.”
The date Kuroda will ride off into the sunset is still undetermined, but there are other veterans around Japan who are stepping onto the diamond for the last time.
For those players, the final stanza of the season is a chance for them to try to finish on a high note and, more importantly, a chance for the fans to say goodbye.
And Japanese baseball takes its goodbyes seriously.
Retiring stars in many sports, in many countries, are feted by the public as they step out of the spotlight. Japan is no different, and retiring players are often treated to grandiose farewell celebrations.
These “retirement games” allow those players, some of whom are far removed from meaningful, if any, playing time, one last star turn. Even those who retire over the offseason are often honored either at fan appreciation events or during a game in spring training the following year.
It’s almost a rite of passage in Japan.
In Hiroshima on Sunday, for example, the fans showed their appreciation for Jun Hirose, who started with team in 2001 and Yoshikazu Kura, who joined the team in 1998. Kura hadn’t played all season, but was a starter on Sunday and slipped on his catchers’ mask to work an at-bat with Kuroda, drafted in 1997, his teammate for many years.
Unfortunately the game they were playing was washed away by rain. Still, Kura gave the fans a show, coming back out in the rain, pantomiming hitting a home run and capping the imaginary drive with a wet, head-first slide into home.
In Chiba, Sunday was a hours-long lovefest for Saburo Omura, who is walking away after 22 seasons. There were tributes all around the stadium and even a few players from the Yomiuri Giants, for whom Omura played 48 games after a trade in 2011, turned up to show their support. The Marines had one of their biggest crowds of the season and the entire day was focused on the departing outfielder.
The scene will be the same in Yokohama when pitcher Daisuke Miura, who was a rookie in 1992, plays his final regular-season game on Thursday. Every BayStars player will be wearing Miura’s No. 18 and the career of “Hama no Bancho” (Boss of Yokohama) will be celebrated by his legion of fans.
Sometimes these celebrations are taken so seriously in NPB that it’s not uncommon to see a contending club shoehorn a player into games with postseason implications.
Miura, (0-2 with an 8.64 ERA) in fact may be getting his start while the BayStars are still alive in the race for second place in the Central League, which would give them homefield advantage in the first round of the CL Climax Series.
Conflicts like that aside, the retirement ceremonies offer up a welcome bit of levity in a game that can take itself too seriously.
Japanese baseball players and fans are famous for working hard and playing hard, so its no surprise they love hard as well, and touching farewells, both large and small in scale, will continue to be on tap as the season draws to a close.