Nippon Professional Baseball [NPB] has plenty of fun moments and characters through its long history. Who could forget the Bunyan-esque cult hero Randy Bass, whose heroics for the Hanshin Tigers famously caused such a frenzy that the Tigers faithful threw a Colonel Sanders KFC statue into the nearby river? Or Balvino Galvez, the charismatic Dominican pitcher who became the first non-Japanese pitcher to start Opening Day for the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, and was the man behind an infamous benches-clearing brawl with rival Hanshin? How about the legendary hitter Hiromitsu Ochiai, whose approach to the game that led to him winning three Triple Crowns was referred to as oreryu, or “to do with only my style.” There’s even been folklore for the ages created recently, as 20-year old Roki Sasaki of the Chiba Lotte Marines made international headlines earlier this year when he pitched the first perfect game in NPB in 28 years – fanning 19 in the process – before nearly pitching another, going 17 innings without a runner.
Through all the tales, legends and curses, one name has remained constant throughout recent years: Tsuyoshi Shinjo. The current manager of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, who has asked to be referred to as “Big Boss” since being hired in November 2021, has gotten plenty of attention this year for his fun-loving approach to the game, which have included riding a hovercraft during pregame introductions, having his “Big Boss” nickname written on the back of his jersey, and even stealing the ceremonial first pitch.
While his antics as manager have made headlines recently, Shinjo has always been one of the most dynamic and creative-thinking players in NPB history, as one of his most famous moments – “the intentional sayonara” – proves (in Japan, a game-ending “walk-off” hit is referred to as a “sayonara hit”). To celebrate the 23rd anniversary of this fun occasion that is one of the reasons why we love not just Shinjo, but also the game of baseball, we have given “the intentional sayonara” an official writeup.
“Big Boss,” the Player
Shinjo first made his splash in baseball as one of the most outspoken, fun-loving players in NPB. With his dyed hair and colorful wristbands, Shinjo was a dynamic player to watch in the outfield, regularly jumping while catching routine fly balls. While trying to make his presence felt on his first team – the Hanshin Tigers – it was his unique style of play and endearing enthusiasm that kept him in the lineup early. While he was known for his fun-loving style, he often struggled to adapt to the strict Japanese style of play, and even considered retirement after having to play under tight regimes like the iron-fisted Taira Fujita from 1995 to 1996; his family had to convince him otherwise.
As the years went on, Shinjo underwent a number of different methods to work on his batting, including practicing as a pitcher during spring training. Tigers kantoku Katsuya Nomura said that this was to allow him to better understand the minds of pitchers while in the batter’s box… something that would certainly come into play during the famous hit.
This isn’t to suggest that Shinjo wasn’t a stellar player, however. He was a ten-time Gold Glove winner, seven-time All-Star, and three-time Best Nine, and actually became the first Japanese player to appear in a World Series, with the San Francisco Giants in 2002. Beloved throughout Japan for his vibrant play and passion for the game, he returned to NPB in 2004 with the Fighters, and won the Japan Series in his final playing season, finishing the final game with tears in his eyes. He was so beloved, in fact, that before the Fighters threw kantoku Trey Hillman in the traditional dohage, they first threw up Shinjo in his ecstasy.
As a result, it often seemed as if Shinjo could do no wrong, which is perhaps why he believed he could get away with swinging at an intentional walk pitch. A few days before the Tigers played their hated rival Yomiuri Giants at Koshien Stadium, as the Tigers played Hiroshima on June 9, Shinjo observed that during an intentional walk, the lobbed pitch was often not that far outside his hitting zone, perhaps creating the chance – if the opposing defense was caught napping – for an easy hit out of the infield. In batting practice, he asked the pitcher to try throwing an intentional walk to him so he could try to poke at it, and subsequently gained the attention of his hitting coach, Junichi Kashiwabara, who asked what he was up to; Shinjo responded that at the next opportunity, he would whack at the intentional walk.
Kashiwabara himself was no stranger to clutch hitting. A journeyman power hitter who spent 16 seasons with the Nankai Hawks, Fighters, and Tigers, Kashiwabara was regularly one of the top batters in the lineup, having notched a total of 818 RBIs and 232 home runs – as well as 1437 hits – over his career.
While he had hit plenty of long balls in his career, this idea was certainly out of the park, and a bit outside of the traditional values that define Japanese baseball. He said that if Shinjo was given the opportunity, he could signal to the bench that he wanted to try it, but there would be no guarantee that Nomura – who was known for his tough love and more analytical approach to the game – would bite and go for it.
“Big Boss,” and The Game
On June 12, 1999, the Hanshin Tigers met the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants in what was sure to be a heavyweight matchup. The Tigers, who had not seen much success in the fourteen seasons since their 1985 Japan Series win were enjoying somewhat of a renaissance season, as they were in first place in the Central League and looking to make noise as the summer wore on. The series against their hated rivals was sure to provide ample motivation material, and on the sacred grounds of Koshien, the two squads – one year removed from a benches-clearing brawl – were ready for a showdown.
A showdown, it was. The two teams battled each other into extra innings with a 4-4 tie, and neither seemed willing to budge. Heading into the 12th inning – after which the game would have been declared a tie, per NPB rules – the Tigers had nearly run out of batters, forcing Shinjo to make his first-ever professional appearance at second base. Shinjo did well, making the final out of the inning on a sharp grounder, but his big moment was yet to come. The Tigers had runners on the corners with only one out, and the Giants – led in the dugout by the legendary Shigeo Nagashima – faced a difficult situation with Shinjo at the plate. Nagashima, not willing to risk giving up a run, gave Hiromi Makihara the signal Shinjo wanted: intentional walk.
Shinjo watched the first intentional ball go by – the Makihara yanked it and threw it at the catcher’s feet, nearly resulting in a wild pitch. Shinjo must have presumed that the pitcher would be more deliberate with the next pitch, ensuring that the game didn’t end on an errant intentional ball. He looked back at Nomura and Kashiwabara, believing he could pull it off. Kashiwabara reported to Nomura the same, and the kantoku, in his typical grandfatherly demeanor, gave the following statement: “Oh, that showoff… let him do what he wants.” Kashiwabara, reportedly shocked, followed his command, and gave Shinjo the all-clear: it was hero time.
Shinjo waited casually in a relaxed, upright stance, but as the Makihara lifted his leg to throw, Shinjo crept towards home plate with his right foot and lifted his left knee high to start his swing. The pitch was exactly the type that he was hoping for – about belly-button high and a foot outside. His lead leg lunged towards the left-hand batter’s box, actually crossing in front of home plate and outside of the right-hand batter’s box, and he put a hard, off-balanced swing on the ball. He made contact, spiking the ball into the legendary Koshien dirt and towards left field. The shortstop, not ready for the surprise attack, could only watch as it bounced into the outfield grass. The Tigers, via an approach that had rarely been seen in professional baseball before, had won the game, and the crowd went berzerk.
Not everyone was ready to acknowledge the accomplishment, however. As the Tigers mobbed Shinjo at first base, Giants assistant manager Tatsunori Hara ran to his boss Nagashima and insisted that Shinjo’s foot was outside of the box, and that the Giants had a legitimate case to argue for his ejection. Nagashima listened, but upon viewing the crazed Koshien crowd – riled up from an epic Saturday night victory against their rivals – decided that it was in the team’s best interest to swallow their pride, and come back the next day. The Giants descended quietly into the visiting clubhouse as the raucous celebration continued on the field and in the stands.
Shinjo, meanwhile, was enjoying the limelight. He was quickly named the hero of the game, and given his rightful place on the podium, where he was to be interviewed for the crowd. Shinjo boldly and emphatically claimed “Ashita mo katsu!” Roughly translated, it means “tomorrow we will win again!” The Tigers were riding high, and it seemed nothing could ruin the moment.
“Big Boss” and the Hit’s Legacy
While it was certainly the talk of Nishinomiya the next day, Shinjo’s legendary hit would later only become a footnote for the ages in what was an otherwise forgotten season. Just a week after he boldly claimed the Tigers would win again, Hanshin was out of first place and falling into a slump. He later tried to claim the same thing after more heroics in a home game, but the Tigers promptly suffered a 12-game losing streak, subsequently banning the statement from ever appearing in another hero’s interview.
While his team struggled, Shinjo enjoyed success on the personal level in 1999. He was named an All-Star for the third time in his career, and subsequently won his fifth Gold Glove award. By this time, Major League Baseball had already placed their footing in Japan following the success of Hideo Nomo, and their next target appeared to be Shinjo, who had one season left on his contract.
While it certainly added flavor to the game, there may never be another sayonara intentional walk, as MLB voted to implement instant intentional walks in 2017, meaning the manager would only signal the umpire when desiring an intentional walk, rather than the pitcher throwing four balls out of reach; NPB followed suit in 2018. While the move may shave time off of the official game time and improve pace of play, it certainly removed the fun oddities that came with it, i.e. Shinjo’s “intentional sayonara.”
Check out videos of more fun intentional walks below!
Author’s note: Daisuke Chihara helped significantly with the research and translation for this article.