A touching tribute to a player’s career or insult to the sport?

In Major League Baseball, pitchers often go out on a bittersweet note. As a testament to having given it all they had, greats like CC Sabathia and Nolan Ryan both had extremely disappointing final starts. Even Cy Young himself gave up eight hits to his last eight batters. It’s sad, but in a way good because the pitcher can rest assured that they had contributed as much to their team as they possibly could before the end.

Nippon Professional Baseball, though, sometimes does things a little differently. When a pitcher is set to retire, there is an unwritten rule that their last batters will allow strikeouts so that the pitcher can go out on a high note. Since this usually happens at the end of a season, and in cases where the outcome isn’t critical, it usually doesn’t spark much controversy.

However, on 10 November, the Hanshin Tigers faced off against the Yomiuri Giants in what was to be Hanshin pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa’s final appearance of his career. At the top of the ninth inning Fujikawa struck out the first two Giants batters.

The final batter of Fujikawa’s career was Shinnosuke Shigenobu who, after letting one ball go by, went ahead and cranked the next pitch into right field where it was easily and unceremoniously picked off for the last out of the inning.

Although it was a fairly normal end to an inning, commentator and former Hanshin great Masayuki Kakefu lamented, “Oh, he was so close too, I guess Shigenobu didn’t know,” referring to the possibility that the batter didn’t know that he was supposed to let Fujikawa strike him out.

It’s unclear why Shigenobu connected with the ball. Perhaps he just didn’t care about the custom, but he may have also attempted to fake a miss only to accidentally hit the ball. Sakamoto, who was Fujikawa’s first strikeout of the inning, is a star player for the Giants and was brought in as a pinch hitter. Some are presuming this is because he has the skills to appear to try and hit the ball while striking out.

▼ Kyuji Fujikawa first strikeout vs. Hayato Sakamoto

Regardless of his true intentions, this led to debate online over the sportsmanship of what Shigenobu did, with people coming down on all sides of the issue.

“Shigenobu is an undisciplined player.”
“Does it make Fujikawa happy to be given a free pass?”
“Are we going to acknowledge that this custom is match fixing?”
“Shigenobu has a responsibility to keep his batting average up as much as possible.”
“It’s easy to strikeout on purpose, but it’s extremely hard to strikeout on purpose but look like you’re trying. Sakamoto just makes it look easy.”
“I hate this custom. Retired players should just move aside if they don’t want to try anymore.”
“Shigenobu just doesn’t get it.”
“Isn’t it ruder to the pitcher to let them strike you out?”
“Just take your paycheck and show me good baseball!”
“The end of the game was completely inconsequential. Shigenobu was selfish.”

At the time of the pitch, the Giants were leading 4 – 0 late in the game, meaning the Tigers had little chance at a comeback. Even if they had come back, the game in question was the second-last of the season for each team, and because of modifications to the schedule due to COVID-19 and the postponed Olympics, the Giants had already clinched the only Central League position in the Japan Series.

However, even though Shigenobu wouldn’t have gained or lost much from giving up a strikeout, the ethical question remains. After all, hitting the ball is the job that he’s paid to do, just as striking people out fairly is the job Fujikawa is paid to do.

Allowing them to shirk their responsibilities in this way would be the same as letting me get an AI to write my articles just because I reached some arbitrary milestone, and that’s just downright unprofessional.

Source: Chunichi Sports, Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso
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