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THE HOT CORNER: The new life of old rookie Ishii

by Jim Allen (Aug 20, 2009)

For many athletes, the time comes when their desire to continue their careers is threatened by the changing needs of their teams. That time came last year for Takuro Ishii.

The infielder, who caught on with the Hiroshima Carp and turns 39 on Tuesday, is a rare player and a true optimist.

"I suppose the situation was harsh, but on the other hand it presented me with possibilities, with choices," Ishii told The Hot Corner prior to Hiroshima's game at his old park, Yokohama Stadium.

"If I were to stay in the same place and try to maintain the status quo, then I think things would have become even tougher.

"But out of a choice, different possibilities were born, and that in turn led to my enthusiasm."

For a man whose career has been that of a phoenix, Ishii's spark is understandable.

An undrafted high school pitcher, Ishii signed with the Yokohama Taiyo Whales after a tryout. After a 1-4 record and a 5.69 ERA in 26 Central League games over three seasons, Yokohama gave up on him--at least as a pitcher.

Perhaps Whales coaches saw something in a swing that produced three hits and just two strikeouts in eight at-bats. In any case, the decision to convert Ishii to another position produced enormous dividends over the next 17 seasons.

One of only two Japanese players with at least one pitching win and 2,000 hits--the other is Hall of Famer Tetsuharu Kawakami--Ishii won five CL Best IX Awards at shortstop, and picked up four Golden Gloves, three at third base before he moved over to shortstop.

Last autumn, however, Yokohama jettisoned Ishii and some other veterans to make way for younger talent, testing his optimism when teams failed to beat a path to his door.

"There really weren't many [offers]. It was in fact very tough," Ishii said. "But in the end it wasn't about money. Rather, I wanted to keep going, I wanted a fresh start. Frankly speaking, baseball is fun."

Ishii seemed a curious pickup for the Carp, who were also getting younger.

"He's meant a lot to us, with the experience factor and the way he goes about his daily work," Carp manager Marty Brown said. "It's really good for our younger players."

Brown acknowledged Ishii's performance on the field hasn't matched anyone's expectations: His .200 batting average is only remotely palatable thanks to 17 walks in 178 trips to the plate.

Ishii said it was a tough adjustment with a new club, but he is excited.

"It all feels amazingly fresh. I feel lucky to be given this chance. I suppose I'm an old rookie," said Ishii, who has been disappointed by a rash of mistakes that have kept the Carp from making a run on third place and the final playoff spot.

"We have made a lot of mistakes and it is an issue within the team. I'm not in a position to address the whole team, but with individuals, I can have my say."

Even though the Fish have struggled, Ishii thinks the mixture in Hiroshima could still surprise people this season.

"This is a team with possibilities," he said. "Even myself, I still have things to learn, ways to get better. Looking at the whole team, the pitchers, the position players, there are so many areas in which we can grow: If we keep going the way we are, I think we'll be playing well."

One possibility Ishii has all but discarded is a return to the mound.

"No interest, none," Ishii said. "Pro ball isn't that forgiving. Besides, it would show a lack of respect for the [real] pitchers."

That being said, however, if the team needed him in a blowout to save the bullpen, he would do his duty.

"It doesn't happen in Japan, but with an American manager, I once thought it might be a remote possibility," Ishii said.

Because Japan's teams carry more pitchers than major league clubs, the practice of having a position player pitch is rarely employed here, but Brown has been tested.

"There have been times when I've almost run him out there," Brown said. "There were times when we were getting our ass kicked and I don't want to go to the bullpen. In the States, you'd do it in a heartbeat."

Asked if Ishii may be closer than he thinks to pitching for the first time since 1991, Brown said: "Way closer."

With Ishii, it is probably wisest not to rule anything out.


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