Tsuyoshi Shinjo was the second child (first son) of a farming family in Fukuoka Prefecture. He was inspired to play baseball from the manga/anime “Captain.” Shinjo’s father had dreams of becoming a professional baseball player, and lived vicariously through his son, putting him through grueling drills and training. Shinjo cried often but never quit, eventually starring in high school but never leading his team to the national tournament at Koshien. Still, Hanshin chose him in the 5th round of the 1989 draft. He was highly valued for his speed, fielding and throwing skills. Shinjo was a Yomiuri Giants fan, and word was that the Giants were ready to take him with one of their first three picks. Shocked at not being chosen until the fifth round, Shinjo considered entering university to raise his stock, but in the end, gave in to his father’s words of wisdom: “You’d finally get to play at Koshien…” In fact, Hanshin appeared to be the least interested in Shinjo among the 12 NPB clubs. Upon choosing Shinjo, Kyushu scout Shozo Watanabe visited his home and explained to the father and son that Hanshin was looking to draft pitchers early, and did not expect Shinjo to still be available that late in the draft. They were, in fact, quite interested in his services.
Shinjo spent his entire first season on the farm, and managed just two hits and an average of .074 in 36 games. He asked to be converted to shortstop, and spent the 1990 offseason in Florida, where he worked on his game. He spent much of 1991 on the farm as well, but got the call up after hitting .246 with 9 home runs and 39 RBIs. In his first game on the top squad on September 10, he recorded a pinch hit in his first career at bat (off current Hanshin pitching coach Isao Kohda). He also got his first career start on September 16 in Hiroshima, playing shortstop.
Initially left off the 40-man roster in 1992, he quickly replaced the injured Munehiko Shimada, and got called up to the top squad in May when slugging third baseman Tom O’Malley got deactivated. Shinjo made his season debut on May 26, batting 7th and hitting the game-winning home run in his first at bat. Two days later, on the day that “Mr. Tiger” (Fumio Fujimura) died, Shinjo once again had the game-winning hit to go along with two other hits that night. From his call-up he batted a perfect 1.000 with runners in scoring position for 12 consecutive games. This helped create a media frenzy and earned him the nickname “Tiger Prince.” Later in the season, he got playing time in center field, though he played in the Junior All-Star game at shortstop. Late in the year, with the pennant race reaching its peak, Shinjo literally saved the game with his glove (diving catch in center field) and won it with his bat (walk off home run). On the hero’s podium, he foolishly proclaimed “the pennant is ours!” (It wasn’t. The team finished a close second.) Despite finishing the season just under minimum numbers to qualify for individual titles, Shinjo finished second in the rookie of the year voting, just 5 points under teammate Teruyoshi Kuji.
As a result of the great promise he showed at such a young age (not to mention his immense popularity – along with teammate Tsutomu Kameyama, he swept fans away with KameShin Fever), Shinjo’s salary jumped from 5.2 million yen to 22 million – the greatest percentage salary increase in club history at that time.
Shinjo injured his left shoulder sliding headfirst into first base during an exhibition game in late February 1993, thereby delaying his season debut until the middle of May. Despite this, he made enough plate appearances to qualify for titles, and reached the 100-hit plateau in his age-21 season – just the third player in team history (since the inception of the draft) to do so. He tied O’Malley for top on the club with 23 home runs that year, also getting his first All-CL Team nomination and Golden Glove Award. He also led the league with 13 outfield assists, which would also end up being his career high (equaled again in 1997).
One of Shinjo’s career highlights came on May 13, 1994, against the Yakult Swallows. Facing future MLB closer Shingo Takatsu in the bottom of the ninth inning, Shinjo blasted his first career walk off grand slam home run. Ultimately he would be named to the all-star team that year, entering the first game as a pinch runner and stealing a base. He ended the season tied with Kazuhiko Ishimine for the team lead in home runs (17) and also recorded 205 total bases as well as 289 outfield outs, a career high. Naturally, he won another Golden Glove in center field.
Under newly appointed manager Taira Fujita and hitting coach Kazuhiro Yamauchi, Shinjo worked on his hitting form in 1995. On June 20, one of his long balls came under review and caused considerable controversy. Down a run in the 9th inning against the Yokohama BayStars, Shinjo took closer Nobuhiro Sasaki deep to left. The ball appeared to clear the wall, but came into contact with one of the flags (with his name on it, in fact) of the team’s cheering squad. The ball dropped down onto the warning track, but by the time the relay reached the infield, Shinjo was standing on third base. After umpires reviewed the play, it was deemed impossible to clearly determine whether or not the ball had cleared the wall, or how the play would have ended had there been no interference. The ground rule double left fans incensed, and many a Kung-fu bat ended up on the field. The Tigers would go on to lose the game, but Shinjo harbored no ill feelings towards the fans. His season was tainted by ankle and knee injuries, and his average would dip below the .240 mark for four straight seasons, starting with this one.
That offseason, Shinjo threatened to retire from the game, stating his determination that his baseball skills were not up to par. Ultimately, he renounced the statement, explaining that seeing Tsuyoshi in a baseball uniform was the best medicine for his ailing father. Shinjo later confessed that disagreements with coaches also led to his decision, as did the chance to follow Hideo Nomo’s path (retiring from NPB and signing with an MLB team).
Shinjo started the 1996 season batting leadoff, and made a name for himself by hitting home runs at a quick pace to open the year. In mid-April, he hit long balls in four straight games, and at month’s end, he hit the first two leadoff home runs of his career. On the final game of the year, Shinjo paired up with teammate Kazuhiko Shiotani to hit two grand slams off the same pitcher in a single inning – an NPB first. Though he continued to hit for a low average, he notched 19 home runs and walked a career high 55 times. Shinjo once again won a Golden Glove at season’s end. During the offseason, he would be dispatched to the Hero Stars of the Hawaii Winter League, where he would meet future manager (with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters) Trey Hillman.
Despite hitting poorly in 1997, Shinjo was chosen an all-star by the fans. However, at the game, fans conspired to not sing his cheer song, and there were even signs up shaming him for taking part with such lousy numbers. He struck out a career 120 times, but reached the 20 home run mark for the first time in 4 seasons, and got another Golden Glove Award for his play in center field, which included 13 outfield assists.
Shinjo’s career hit an all-time low in 1998, as he finished the year with a .222 average (lowest in the league among qualified hitters), six home runs and 27 RBIs. Needing just 3 home runs to reach the 100 HR mark on his career at season’s start, Shinjo went homer-less through the end of June. He also happened to be the pennant-clinching out for the Yokohama BayStars on October 8 at Koshien Stadium, when he struck out swinging at a Sasaki offering. Even so, his 12 outfield assists were enough to tie him for the league lead, and he picked up yet another Golden Glove.
In 1999, Katsuya Nomura became manager of the Tigers, as the team tried to break out of its 13-season long slump. In the offseason before his official tenure began, Nomura presented Shinjo with an interesting challenge: adding “pitcher” to his resume. The experiment did not last long, though, as Shinjo injured his left knee while on the mound during Game 2 of the exhibition schedule in the spring of 1999. His season would start late, and was full of memorable moments, for better or for worse. On May 27, facing the first place Chunichi Dragons (in Toyama City), Shinjo hit into a triple play, and later let a shallow single roll past him to help the Dragons clear the bases on their way to a 7-0 lead. (He would later hit a 2-run home run to begin the comeback, and got on base as the potential tying run to open the ninth, but the team would ultimately fall short.)
But perhaps the most defining, memorable moment in Shinjo’s time with Hanshin came just a couple of weeks later. On June 12th at Koshien against the Giants, the game was knotted at 4 in the bottom of the 12th inning. Hanshin had runners on first and third and just one out. Pitcher Hiromi Makihara (he who dished up the most famous moment in team history) elected to intentionally walk Shinjo and try for the force out at home with the next hitter. Makihara’s pitches were a little too close to the strike zone, and Shinjo swatted at the second one, sending it through the left side of the infield for a walk off win. On the hero’s podium, he infamously said, “We’ll win again tomorrow!” Without another word, he left the podium. Naturally, the last place Tigers lost.
In Game 3 of All-Star Week, Shinjo hit the CL’s 1000th ever All-Star hit, and then a home run, earning Game MVP honors. Then on September 10, after hitting the game-winning home run against the Giants, Shinjo once again said “We’ll win again tomorrow!” This time, the team started a 12-game losing streak the very next day, equaling the club record for futility. While putting up marginally better numbers than in 1998, Shinjo’s season was marked with a dubious distinction of its own: an NPB-worst 21 double plays hit into – all of which came after two months of the season had already been played.
Shinjo had offseason surgery on his knee, but still made it back in time to start the season, batting fourth on Opening Day for the first time ever. In what would be his final year with Hanshin, he put up career highs in many categories, including home runs (28), RBIs (85), and stolen bases (15). Twenty of those home runs tied the game or gave Hanshin the lead. Shinjo also had a solid 16-game hitting streak and a 4-game home run streak.
Despite an offseason offer from Hanshin worth 1.2 billion yen (around $10 million) over 5 years, Shinjo elected to sign with the New York Mets for the MLB minimum salary of $200,000 plus incentives. He joined Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners) as the first Japanese fielders to sign with major league teams.
Shinjo made his debut as a pinch runner on April 3, got his first start on April 5, and his first career home run on April 9. His aggressive running (tagging up from first base on a fly ball to center) earned him accolades from teammates, coaches and the press, but also led to a trip to the disabled list in mid season, as he sprinted to first base against the Yankees to break up a double play on an already tight left hamstring. Also, his antics as a hitter (bat flips, touching home base with his hand on home runs, sneaking peeks at the catcher’s signals) made him the target of criticism and hostility from other teams and their fans. He did make a name for himself as a clutch hitter, though, going 7-for-12 in bases loaded situations. In the field, he made some spectacular catches and finished fifth in the National League in outfield assists.
On December 16, 2001, he was sent to the San Francisco Giants in a two-for-one trade. Expected to be their leadoff hitter, Shinjo struggled with the idea of working the count, eventually being dropped to 7th, and eventually getting demoted to the farm (in part due to a sore right hamstring) in July. Though he was ready to return to the top squad in early August, the Giants had acquired Kenny Lofton via trade, He was still useful in the field, and helped the team reach the playoffs. It was his first chance at the postseason. Shinjo became the first Japanese player to ever play in a World Series, batting ninth as designated hitter. He got a hit in his second at bat, and his signed bat is in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Shinjo had a chance to tie up Game 7 of the series in the top of the ninth with a home run, but he struck out swinging against Troy Percival. The club elected not to exercise its option on his contract, and he spent the offseason as a non-tendered free agent.
Shinjo signed a new one-year contract with the New York Mets on January 11, 2003, worth $600,000. Despite hitting well in spring training, Shinjo got limited playing time during the regular season due to injury and poor performance against right-handed pitchers. He continued to excel in the field, though, recording his 100th career outfield assist on May 8, and his first ever game-saving assist (making the final out by throwing out the potential game-tying runner at home) on May 23. However, he was ultimately sent down to the minors at the end of June, and never made it back up to the top squad thereafter.
Shinjo apparently said he was going to accept the first offer that came his way that offseason, and it happened to be from the Nippon Ham Fighters of NPB. He hit the first ever Hokkaido-era home run in club history, and also reached the 1000 NPB career hit mark in 2004 as well. In Game 2 of the All-Star series, Shinjo stole home base while ex-teammates Shinobu Fukuhara and Akihiro Yano formed the CL battery. He also hit two doubles and took home game MVP. His attention-grabbing antics (dressing up as various characters during warm-ups, etc.) stole the spotlight from what was actually a good season. Shinjo recorded a personal best .298 average, hitting over .300 in each of the season’s final three months. He also won player of the month in the player strike-shortened September, compiling 7 home runs, 20 RBIs and 15 runs. Once again he won a Golden Glove, and also was named to the all-PL team at season’s end.
Shinjo reached a few more milestones in 2005, including his 1500th career game played, 1000th career strikeout, and 200th career home run (all NPB/MLB combined). In July, he took a pitch to the hand and missed enough time that he did not qualify for individual titles at season’s end. He did, however, get enough votes for yet another Golden Glove Award, but he spoke out against his selection saying, “I am so sorry to all the players who worked hard all year to try to win this award. Next year I hope voters will look at the numbers, and not the impression that players give.”
Throughout his time with the Fighters, Shinjo had a penchant for christening his home runs. The one he hit on April 18, 2006, he called the “I’ve had all the fun I could possibly get out my 28 years as a pro, and I’m shedding my uniform for good at season’s end.” (This would be the final home run he named.) On June 16, he hit his 200th career NPB home run, and on August 22, he got his 1500th career (NPB/MLB) hit. Shinjo put on his own retirement ceremony after the team’s final regular season game at Sapporo Dome on September 27th, but the club was still hoping to sign him for another year. Shinjo went 2-for-6 in the second stage of the playoffs against the SoftBank Hawks, hitting the game-winning RBI in the first game. He then went 5-for-17 in the Nippon Series, helping the team beat the Chunichi Dragons four games to one. A teary-eyed Shinjo would strike out on three pitches in his final at bat in the bottom of the 8th of Game 5.
Upon retiring from baseball, Shinjo went on to make TV appearances, become an air brush artist, and even a motocross racer.