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Having a ball in Beijing: Veteran hopes to go out with a bang

by Jim Allen / Daily Yomiuri Sportswriter (Jan 1, 2008)

For Atsunori Inaba and Japan, this is an opportunity that will likely never come again.

With baseball's Olympic prospects after 2008 looking bleak, this could be the last chance to turn a national passion for the diamond into Olympic gold.

Despite the best two-year stretch of his career, time is not on Inaba's side. At 35, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters outfielder is taking nothing for granted.

"At my age, you never know what's left. Any year could be your last, so you want to make the best of it," Inaba said last month in Tokyo after collecting his second straight Golden Glove Award.

"This Olympics could be the last [for baseball] so I want to be a part of it."

Inaba, who was runnerup in Pacific League MVP voting to Fighters and Japan teammate Yu Darvish, supplied big hits and big catches as the national team earned a ticket to Beijing with a three-game sweep in Olympic qualifying in the first days of December.

"The sense of responsibility was extremely heavy," said Inaba of his first appearance in a Japan uniform at any level. "We wanted to look at each game as a separate challenge--and we were able to do that."

Inaba marked his national team debut with a solo homer in Japan's first win, over the Philippines. The team fell behind in its final two games but came back under fiery manager Senichi Hoshino, who was also making his Japan debut.

"He is like I thought he would be," said Inaba, who had never played for the former Chunichi Dragons and Hanshin Tigers skipper. "I could feel his passion for the game, for this effort.

"We never had a chance to talk but he communicated that passion."

The team will need all the energy it can muster in August in Beijing, which will have the toughest Olympic field ever.

Japan's opponents already include Cuba, the Athens Olympic champion, and the United States, the gold medalist in Sydney. Cuba, runnerup in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, will be keen to knock off WBC champion Japan. And should South Korea qualify, a rematch against Japan should provide fireworks in Beijing.

The two nations' three WBC battles were all classics, and the sparks continued to fly on Dec. 2 in Taiwan.

After learning Japan would start lefty Yoshihisa Naruse instead of the right-handed Darvish, South Korea's skipper violated a gentleman's agreement by making a host of last-minute lineup changes.

Before a rematch takes place, the Koreans will have to finish in the top three in the final qualifying round scheduled for March in Taiwan. Joining that eight-team field will be Taiwan, Athens silver medalist Australia, Canada and Mexico.

Host China and top European qualifier the Netherlands have already booked spots in Beijing, but they will be the closest things to easy prey in the final eight.

For Japan's players, the hardest part may be simply prying themselves away from their teams in the heat of a pennant race. Although there will be fewer Central and Pacific league games during the Olympics, players will still have to leave the clubs that are their focus for 10 months a year.

Although Inaba has not yet been selected to play in Beijing, he is relishing the opportunity to finish what he started--even if it means depriving the offensively challenged Fighters of their best hitter for three weeks.

"If I'm chosen, it will be hard [to leave]," he said. "But it's a chance to play for your country, and those don't come along very often.

"If I get that chance, I want to grab it."


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