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Pros Boost Olympic Dreams for Japanese Baseball

November 15, 1999

Baseball is one of the most popular sports in Japan. Now the country has formed its first national team composed of both professional and amateur players. In mid-September 1999, this Japanese "Dream Team" went to Seoul to compete in the Asian qualifying games for the upcoming Sydney Olympics, which will take place in 2000. The team's performance in Seoul assured it of a first-class ticket to Sydney. Spectators were dazzled by the team, which counts among its pro players 19-year-old rookie star Daisuke Matsuzaka, and hopes are high that Japan will medal in Olympic baseball.

Adding Pros to the Roster
Olympic baseball was once open only to amateurs, but starting with the Sydney Olympics, the International Baseball Association is lifting the ban on pro players. This decision opened the door for professional Japanese baseball players to compete in the Asian preliminaries. Meanwhile, for the qualifying round across the Pacific, the United States, baseball's mother country, put together a squad of all-stars from minor-league 3-A teams. The U.S. team earned a place at the Olympics alongside the Cuban team, the world's number-one amateur baseball team.

Several recent developments have prompted Japan to send pro baseball players to the Olympics. First, other Asian national teams are also adding pro players to their rosters. South Korea, the host country for the Asian preliminaries, suspended its pro baseball season to stock its team with pro all-stars. And Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) has beefed up its roster with many pros as well. At the finals of the 1998 Asian baseball tournament, held in Bangkok in December, Japan's all-amateur team suffered a mercy-rule 13-1 loss to the powerful Koreans.

Another factor spurring Japan to include pros on its national squad is the IBA's decision to restrict the use of aluminum bats--the kind of bats that amateur players in Japan are most accustomed to using. This has many people worried that Japan cannot make it in international competition with a team composed solely of amateurs, and thus pros--who use wooden bats in league play--have been brought on board.

Winning Internationally No Piece of Cake
But Japan's pro leagues, the Central and Pacific Leagues, have not responded with wholehearted enthusiasm to the Olympic call. While the Pacific League has made an active effort to cooperate, the Central League, loath to part with players near the end of the season in the midst of the pennant drive, has been less enthusiastic. In all, the Pacific League sent six players, one from each team. The Central League sent two: Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta, who in his amateur days played with pitcher Hideo Nomo (now playing in the North American Major Leagues) at the Seoul Olympics in 1988; and Hiroshima Carp infielder Kenjiro Nomura.

With the help of these pros, Japan took first place in the preliminary round of the Asian tournament. In its first game of the finals on September 15, Japan beat Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) 2-1 behind the pitching of Matsuzaka, who gave up one run while fanning 13 in a complete game. Amateur Jun Heima, a former high school teammate of Matsuzaka, drove in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth to put the game away. The next day Japan beat China 3-0, winning one of the two Olympic spots reserved for Asian teams. Japan was unable to go undefeated, as it lost the September 17 game against South Korea, which had taken the other Olympic berth.

Even with the help of the pros, Japan had a tough time in the Asian tournament. Though Japan has medaled in four successive Olympic baseball tournaments, winning the gold at Los Angeles in 1984, a growing number of people feel that Japan will need an even stronger team to hold its own in Sydney, where pros from around the world will gather. But the Olympics come during the critical final stretch of the pro baseball season. Matsuzaka and Furuta are eager to make a good showing for Japan, but with baseball officialdom reluctant to interrupt its season, Olympic aspirations for Japan's baseball Dream Team may still be a pipe dream.

Trends in JapanEdited 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.