Kosuke Fukudome was surprised with a small cake and some birthday wishes by a couple of teammates during a workout at Koshien Stadium on Sunday.
That, however, probably wasn't the way the Hanshin Tigers outfielder had envisioned celebrating his 43rd birthday.
If everything had gone according to plan, the Tigers would've been visiting the Chunichi Dragons on Sunday and the sound of Happy Birthday being sung would've rang out from the Hanshin cheering section at Nagoya Dome as fans serenaded Fukudome during his first at-bat.
That, of course, was before a delay in the 2020 campaign (which was supposed to start March 20) became part of the coronavirus fallout.
Tigers fans missing out on the chance to sing to Fukudome isn't really that big of a deal in the grand scheme. It does, however, highlight the sobering reality (in the sports world only) that with every game that's called off, we lose a little more of the relatively short time we have left with the game's veteran stars.
There are plenty of fan favorites in the latter stages of their NPB careers and right now no one is 100 percent certain when we'll see them play again.
No one plays forever and none of NPB's aging talents will be the exception. No matter how long an athlete hangs on, the end comes for them all.
Before the inevitable finale, many become heroes and idols to those watching from the stands. The fans get joy from seeing them play. They take pride in the exploits of their own veterans and show respect to those from rival clubs.
That's to say nothing of the athletes themselves, who are doing something they love.
No one will complain, because the bigger picture is far more important. From a strictly sporting standpoint, however, it's still a little sad to consider games being shaved off the twilight of some players' careers.
Because of the coronavirus, there are now fewer opportunities see these veteran stars, and once they're gone, they're gone. Whether it's later this year or even next year, baseball will be back at some point. The same can't be said about a 40-something ball player.
In NPB, Fukudome is the elder statesman at 43. Behind him is Dragons pitcher Daisuke Yamai, who will be 42 on May 10. Tigers pitcher Atsushi Nomi and Swallows hurler Ryota Igarashi will rise to 41 on May 28 while Hiroshima Carp catcher Yoshiyuki Ishihara will join them Sept. 7. Behind them are a swath of players on the wrong side of 36.
The interleague season has already been canceled, so players have already lost games. It's a big loss for the fans, too.
Imagine if new Chiba Lotte Marines infielder Takashi Toritani (39 on June 26) decides to hang it up this year. Toritani played in 2,169 games with Hanshin from 2004 to 2019 and is among the most famous players in the club's history.
His new team was due to play an interleague series at Koshien — from May 26 to 28 — that you can bet more than a few of Hanshin's famously rabid fans were looking forward to attending. If Toritani retires, then Tigers fans have already seen the last of him and wouldn't get another chance to watch him play or to shower him with appreciation for his time with the team.
It would be a shame for both Toritani and Tigers fans. A shame for NPB fans in general, to be honest. And that's just one example.
NPB may very well still figure out a way to play as many contests as possible (excluding interleague) this season. Even if it does, some veteran players, and many fans, have already lost precious time they'll never get back.
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