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Japan Qualifies for Olympic Baseball Tournament (December 11, 2003)

Asian Championship
Outfielder Takahashi Yoshinobu keys Japan's offense. (OCAC 2003)
Baseball's Asian Championship, which doubled as the Olympic qualifying event, was held at Sapporo Dome in Hokkaido from October 31 to November 7, 2003. Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan competed in the final round from November 5 to 7. In sweeping its games, Japan earned a trip to the August 2004 Athens Olympics. With national hero Nagashima Shigeo taking the helm as manager, the Japanese squad was a "dream team" of professional players. This commitment to victory paid off as the team not only reclaimed Japan's position as the Asian number one but also took a big step in its quest to win a long-cherished gold medal.

Japan's Dream Team to the Rescue
Baseball outshines even soccer as Japan's most popular sport. However, the Japanese team has struggled in recent international competitions. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the team lost to South Korea in the third-place playoff, finishing out of the medals for the first time ever. In the 2001 World Cup, Japan was defeated by Taiwan and again had to settle for fourth place. And at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea, the team wound up behind the host nation and Taiwan in third place. One reason for this string of defeats is that these teams were made up of a combination of professional and amateur players. Sensing a crisis, the powers that be in Japanese baseball joined forces, fielding a team made up of its elite talent to battle at the Asian Championships for a spot at the Athens Olympics. Heading the list was none other than Nagashima Shigeo, the legendary former Yomiuri Giants player and manager. As a player, Nagashima captivated a generation with his dazzling play, and as a manager he won multiple championships. His most compelling attribute, though, is his power to inspire and unify his players.

Under the guidance of manager Nagashima were 22 players, all of them pros. Bona fide stars including young pitching ace Matsuzaka Daisuke (Seibu Lions) and Pacific League MVP Jojima Kenji (Daiei Hawks) were among the members of this "dream team." Each player was paid ¥1.5 million ($13,636 at ¥110 to the dollar) for playing, with a bonus of ¥2 million ($18,181) promised for earning a ticket to Athens.

A Dominating Performance
Only two Olympic spots were available for the taking at the Asian Championships. Japan's strongest opponents in the championship league, South Korea and Taiwan, also fielded teams of professional players. In its opening game against China, Japan, led by ace pitcher Uehara Koji of the Yomiuri Giants, won by an impressive 13-1 margin. In the next game, Japan, with starting pitcher Matsuzaka on the mound, shut out Taiwan 9-0. And in the final game against South Korea, Japan coasted to a 2-0 win for three straight victories thanks to some fine throwing by Wada Tsuyoshi, a rookie left-hander who played a big role in Daiei's victory in the Japan Series. Since baseball was first added as an exhibition event at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Japan has now qualified six consecutive times. This time, the team tallied 24 runs in 3 games while giving up only 1 to its opponents. Even manager Nagashima, who had declared that winning in Asia was a prerequisite for hoisting the Japanese flag in Athens, the birthplace of the Olympics, expressed his unreserved joy, saying, "This has been a dream-like three days."

Athens Awaits
Next up is the Olympics. While Japan was victorious at the Los Angeles Olympics when baseball was an exhibition event, since then it has come up short of the gold, finishing second, third, second, and fourth. This record of near misses prompted the plan to send a team consisting entirely of pros to the next Games. At this stage, each of the 12 pro teams has agreed to provide two of its players for the Japanese team. "We got through the qualifiers, but our ultimate mission is the main event. I want to put together a seamless team and staff, and throw everything we have into our challenge next August," said an enthusiastic Nagashima. Japan's team of top stars, including Matsuzaka, Uehara, and Jojima, should be ready to roll in Athens.

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Related Web Sites
Sapporo Dome
"Nagashima Shigeo" in Japan Access
Yomiuri Giants (Japanese only)
Seibu Lions (Japanese only)

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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