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Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006

Morimoto caught up in moment

Staff writer

SAPPORO -- Hichori Morimoto is no Doug Mientkiewicz.

News photo
Hokkaido Nippon Ham`s Hichori Morimoto makes a head-first slide into third base for a triple in the third inning of Game 4 of the Japan Series on Wednesday. The Fighters wrapped up their title on Thursday as Morimoto caught the final out in left field. KYODO PHOTO

More like a Tsuyoshi Shinjo, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters hope.

Morimoto played left field for the Fighters this season alongside the charismatic Shinjo in center, and with the veteran retiring after this season, Morimoto is the heir apparent in more ways than one.

"I want Hichori to wear it," Shinjo said of who he wanted to don his No. 1 jersey next season at Sapporo Dome.

It was high praise for Morimoto, so different in appearance than his mentor Shinjo, but so similar in skills.

Both are defensive wizards -- nary a team could knock a ball in the left half of the outfield that one of them couldn't get a glove on, whether it was the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Series or top Pacific League contenders down the stretch.

The final out in Thursday's Game 5 was recorded by Morimoto when Alex Ochoa flied out.

Unlike when the Boston Red Sox ended their World Series drought in 2004 and first baseman Mientkiewicz kept the ball after the final out, Morimoto had no intention of hanging onto the ball forever.

He just wanted to make sure nothing happened to it this time.

When the Fighters beat the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks to seal up the Pacific League regular-season championship, the ball used during the final out disappeared.

"I was excited to catch it," he said. "This time it wasn't getting lost, no matter what."

Morimoto treated the ball with special care, but not necessarily out of concern.

"I didn't know if TV cameras would be on me, so I kept it in my glove," he said. "I didn't want them to see me spit on it or anything."

And like that, Morimoto's sense of humor came back to the surface.

Already the subject of a "Fake Hichori" dupe this week, Morimoto found a way to inject more levity into the Fighters' big week -- he showed up for the beer shower wearing a wetsuit with flames.

Morimoto had a solid Japan Series even after going 0-for-4 in Game 5, finishing 7-for-19 in the five-game slate.

Moved to the leadoff spot this year, Morimoto hit .285 with 28 doubles and 13 stolen bases. He struck out 103 times, however, something that will have to change for the Tokyo native.

"My tendency is to be aggressive," said Morimoto, an All-Star this season. "When I moved up, I thought maybe I should not be as aggressive, but now that things are over, I can say definitely that it was my intention to be aggressive."

Each time the Fighters change pitchers, Nippon Ham's outfielders -- Shinjo, Morimoto and Atsunori Inaba -- meet in the middle, getting on bended knee with their gloves on top of their heads.

Shinjo had struck out in his final at-bat in the bottom of the eighth, and as Micheal Nakamura warmed up to pitch the ninth, the trio gathered for their final pow wow, veteran, successor and Japan Series MVP.

Shinjo had begun crying the previous inning.

"I wasn't crying because this was the Japan Series and I was about to win it," Shinjo said.

"I was crying because I knew I wouldn't be playing with these guys anymore."

The post-Shinjo era has been in the forefront of Morimoto's mind for a while, he said.

"I had a feeling it would be over soon," he said. "I wanted to finish with a smile, but at that last moment, when the ball came to me, I started to think. I'm not going to say crying is a bad thing, but it doesn't help you in the field."

The cheery Morimoto wasn't sad for long, though. When Shinjo passed on his number to Morimoto, the eight-year player was humbled.

"All I can say is, 'Thank you,' " he said. "Next year will be tough without Shinjo-san, but I've got to work hard to make sure we have good results."

Shinjo retires

SAPPORO (Kyodo) Tsuyoshi Shinjo, whose playing career in baseball finished triumphantly with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters' Japan Series success, said Friday he will not change his personal style but will pursue a future that enables him to continue surprising people.

"I'm not going to slip into a baseball uniform any more but I'm always going be Tsuyoshi Shinjo. I want to involve myself in a number of things and keep bringing people big surprises," Shinjo said at Sapporo Dome in his farewell press conference.

Standing on the pitcher's mound of the Fighters home field, Shinjo said he has yet to decide on his future after ending his eventful 17-year career with his team's 4-1 win over the Chunichi Dragons in Game 5 of the Japan Series.

"I'm thinking about what I can do from now on and what kind of talent I have, so I'll continue searching by building up experience in numerous fields," Shinjo said, denying speculation that pursuing a career in politics or becoming a baseball commentator are among the likely options for his immediate future.

The 34-year-old outfielder added he will not play in next month's Asia Series that features the club champions from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China, making clear that Thursday's Japan Series clincher was his last competitive game appearance.

Shinjo broke down in tears during the game as Nippon Ham was closing in on its first Japan Series title in 44 years, and with clouded eyes struck out in his final at-bat in the eighth inning when the Fighters were ahead by three runs.

Shinjo, whose career started with the Hanshin Tigers in 1990 and included a three-year stint in the major leagues, was the emotional leader of the Fighters all year following his surprise announcement after an April 18 game that he would retire after the 2006 season.

His flashy and often controversial showman's style has raised the eyebrows of baseball officials but at the same time helped Nippon Ham gain an expanded fan base since the ballclub moved its home to Hokkaido from Tokyo ahead of the 2004 season.

This year, he appeared before the home fans on a motorcycle in a flashy pre-game ceremony for the Fighters' season opener.

On other occasions, he put on colorful face masks during practices and was even warned for wearing collared undershirts and other shenanigans.

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