Former Nippon Ham player Kenji Sugitani: “Next, I aim to become Shuzo Matsuoka and Yo Oizumi!
Special Interview: 14-year career as a valuable sub player comes to an end. 10 days after his retirement game, the mood-maker of the Pacific League talks about his future.
Sugitani said, “For 14 years, I didn’t win any regulars or titles, and my only regular appearance was on ‘Real Baseball Ban’ on Tonneruzu’s show (laughs). However, I was supported by many teammates and fans during my baseball career, and I would like to return the favor to them in my second life. To do so, I am now working hard to start my own business and study English.
So says Kenshi Sugitani, 31, who was drafted sixth overall by the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2008 out of Teikyo High School after passing the team entrance test.
He had been a valuable sub player, and his comedic humor had endeared him to fans beyond the boundaries of a baseball player, but on October 28, he suddenly announced his “retirement. He played a total of 777 games. At the Samurai Japan training game on November 5, his last at bat, the terrestrial TV broadcast of the game ended just before the crucial at-bat, but both teams participated in a big ceremony after the game.
Ten days after his retirement game, he talked to this magazine about his feelings and future goals, which he could not fully explain at his retirement press conference.
This season, I stopped appearing on variety shows and “Real Baseball Ban,” and worked like a madman to grab every opportunity I could. Manager Tsuyoshi Shinjo gave me a chance to compete, and my failure to produce results there led to my decision to retire.
However, it was not an easy decision to make alone.
I consulted with former manager Hideki Kuriyama, former GM Hiroshi Yoshimura, and others involved with the team, and made a comprehensive decision to retire after this year.
I met Takaaki Ishibashi, who had been a great help to me on ‘Real Baseball BAN,’ in person on October 22, which was Takaaki’s birthday, and told him of my intention to retire.”
Since Ishibashi and Teikyo High School were seniors and juniors, they were invited to “Real Baseball BAN” every year, and Sugitani’s appearance became a regular event at the beginning of the year. He was sometimes mocked as a “good baseball comedian,” but to him it was a compliment.
When I was little, my mother told me to make people smile, and that was at the core of who I was,” he said proudly.
I intend to start my own business.”
While he is known for his friendly personality, he is also known for being the most sincere and hard-working baseball player of all.
When I met Sho Nakata in his early days with the team, I felt the difference in ‘talent. He is big and powerful. I thought, ‘This is the kind of person who will win a regular position in the future. But I couldn’t be Sho Nakata, and there was no point in making the same effort; I had to think about what I should do to be one of the nine players, whether it was a bunt or an end run. I spent 14 years thinking about survival strategies.
Because he had worked so hard to keep up with the talent in front of him, his “setbacks” were greater than others.
I still remember the joys of getting results, such as my first hit and home runs in both at-bats, but the most frustrating memory of my playing days is the setback of the fracture,” he said.
In April 2004, just as he was about to win the regular batting title with a .295 batting average in 2003, he broke the hook bone in his right hand. After two months of hard rehabilitation, he returned to the lineup, but his performance remained sluggish. In the off-season of 2005, he went to Australia to train as a warrior as his last challenge to win a regular position, but he could not achieve satisfactory results. However, this experience led to an unexpected second chance at life.
When I played in a league game in Australia, many local Japanese people came to watch the game. I was so happy that I will never forget it, and I thought that the “circle of sports” was amazing. I now want to bring smiles to people’s faces through sports in the future.
I plan to set up an office (start my own business) when I appear on variety shows, and I also plan to do a project to promote Hokkaido and Australia through sports.
When asked about his future goals, he responded in his typical manner.
I have one goal in mind,” he replied, “which is to be a variety show and a sports show, and one of my goals is to be Shuzo Matsuoka. On the other hand, actor Hiroshi Oizumi, who is overflowing with love for his hometown of Hokkaido, is also a big target for me because I want to give back to Hokkaido, which has supported me for the past 14 years.
Kenshi Sugitani’s second career has just begun.
From the December 2 and 9, 2022 issues of FRIDAY
PHOTO： Hiroyuki Komatsu