Chunichi Dragons and Hanshin Tigers legend Kosuke Fukudome was another player who retired at the end of the 2022 season.
Fukudome had attended high school at the baseball powerhouse PL Gakuen and hit .457 with two home runs and seven RBIs in the four games the school played in the 1995 Summer Koshien tournament (they were eliminated by Chiben Gakuen in the quarter finals). He entered the NPB draft that fall but warned teams beforehand that he was unwilling to sign with any team other than Chunichi or Yomiuri. Despite this he was taken by seven teams in the first round of the draft - Kintetsu, Chunichi, Nippon-Ham, Yomiuri, Lotte, Orix and Yakult. Being picked by seven teams broke the record of six for a high school player (Kazuhiro Kiyohara in 1986) and was one short of the overall record of eight set by Hideo Nomo in the 1989 draft. Kintetsu won the lottery for him but Fukudome held firm and announced that he was joining Nippon Life of the corporate leagues.
Joining Nippon Life allowed him to play in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and at 19 was the youngest member of the Japanese Olympic Baseball team ever. He spent three years with Nippon Life before re-entering the draft in 1998 and being taken by the Dragons as a "reverse nomination player" - essentially he and the Dragons agreed to a deal before the draft which prevented other teams from being able to draft him (although he is officially listed as the Dragons' first round pick that year).
He had a decent rookie season in 1999 as the Dragons regular shortstop (.284 average with 16 home runs) but his career really took off when new manager Hisashi Yamada moved him into the outfield in 2002. He led the Central League in batting that season with a .343 average (which prevented Hideki Matsui from winning the Triple Crown in his final NPB season) and his 186 hits were a team record. He continued to put up good numbers over the next few seasons and had probably his best season in 2006 when he won a second batting title with an average of .351, hit 31 home runs and had 104 RBIs. He was Central League MVP that season as the Dragons won the last pre-Climax Series Central League pennant. He missed the second half of the 2007 season after suffering an elbow injury and so was unable to play in the Nippon Series that year when the Dragons won their first championship since 1954.
He left the Dragons as a free agent after that season and signed with the Chicago Cubs. He ultimately spent five seasons in North America, playing for the Cubs (2008-11), Indians (2011), White Sox (2012) and in the Yankees organization (2012).
He returned to Japan for the 2013 season and joined the Hanshin Tigers. He worked through some injuries his first couple of years with Hanshin (including a bruised chest from a brutal collision with Tsuyoshi Nishioka in the outfield in 2014) but put together a string of good seasons from 2015-18. His playing time started to drop off in 2019 and 2020 as age and injuries caught up with him. The Tigers ultimately released him after the 2020 season and he returned to Nagoya for two final seasons with the Dragons.
Fukudome was the last active NPB player who had played in the 20th century and the the last active player from the 1996 Olympic team. He made the All Star team in Japan five times (1999, 2002-04 and 2006 although he declined to participate in 2006) and once in the US (2008). He won Best 9 awards in 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2015 and Golden Glove awards in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2015. He played in three Nippon Series - 1999 and 2006 with the Dragons and 2014 with the Tigers (in addition to the 2007 Series he also missed the 2004 Series due to injury). He is a member of the Meikyukai, having reached 2000 hits in NPB & MLB combined in 2016. He played in a second Olympics in 2004 and was a member of the first two Japanese World Baseball Classic teams in 2006 and 2009.
His first baseball cards were #310 and #079 in the 1999 BBM and Calbee sets respectively. He appeared in every BBM flagship from 1999 to 2006 and 2013 to 2022 with the exception of the 2022 2nd Version set. Trying to catalog all his cards in this space would be futile - TCBD.com has 1376 cards listed for him
- so I'll just show a bunch of them:
|1999 BBM #310|
|1999 Calbee #079|
|2002 BBM 1st Version #138|
|2003 Chunchi Sports #1|
|2005 BBM All Stars #A31|
|2006 BBM Nippon Series #S51|
|2007 BBM 1st Version #446|
|2009 Topps Ticket To Stardom #TSP-64|
|2013 BBM 1st Version #127|
|2015 Calbee #053|
|2016 BBM Fusion #079|
|2019 BBM 2nd Version #587|
|2020 Epoch One #184|
|2020 BBM Tigers #T60|
|2021 BBM 1st Version #236|
|2022 Epoch NPB #173|
It was nice to get to see him play one last season with the Dragons last year. I hadn't realized he was the last active 20th century player, that is quite interesting.
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