If there are any people around Samurai Japan who understand Olympic success is not a given, it’s Atsunori Inaba and Masahiro Tanaka.
The two were part of the Japan team that was among the favorites to win gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. That roster was stacked, featuring players who had helped Japan win the inaugural World Baseball Classic two years earlier and eight who would move to MLB in the years after the games.
The team flopped.
Even with names Yu Darvish, Koji Uehara, Norichika Aoki and Tanaka, among others, Japan not only failed to win gold, it didn’t earn a medal of any color after losing to a team of U.S. minor leaguers in the bronze medal game. To add insult to injury, there was no immediate shot at redemption as baseball was left off the Olympic program for the next two Summer Games.
So while the 2020 Tokyo Olympics gives Japan another chance to claim its elusive first gold medal in baseball, for Inaba, now the Japan manager, and Tanaka, it’s an opportunity to wash away the taste of the 2008 letdown.
“I was able to participate in the Beijing Games, but I was disappointed because we lost the competition,” Inaba said Wednesday. “But I feel like I’ve been given a great chance to be able to return as the manager in the Tokyo Games.
“That was really disappointing for me personally. I want to aim for the gold medal now that I have another chance. Tanaka was around 19 at that time, he was still young, but he probably has some feelings of regret as well.”
Tanaka returns to Olympic competition as a pitcher who is older and wiser and expected to play a major role for Samurai Japan.
“I have regret from the last time I competed at the Olympics in Beijing,” Tanaka said in a statement on Wednesday after being named to the Olympic team. “So I want to do my best to win a gold medal.”
Tanaka flourished in the years following the disappointment in Beijing. He went on to become one of NPB’s elite pitchers with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, winning the Sawamura Award in 2011 and again in 2013. Tanaka also authored one of the greatest seasons by a pitcher in NPB history during that 2013 campaign, going 24-0 in the regular season before leading the Eagles to their first Japan Series title.
He then moved to MLB via the posting system and spent the next seven seasons with the New York Yankees, where he was 78-46 with a 3.74 ERA and made two all-star teams. Because MLB is not releasing players on 40-man rosters for the Olympics, Tanaka would not have been eligible to play for Japan had the games been staged as planned last year.
He became a free agent after the 2020 season and returned to NPB in January, which put him back on the Samurai Japan radar.
“I wanted to be selected and I was happy when my name was called,” Tanaka was quoted as saying by Jiji Press during a meeting with the media in Sendai after the roster was announced on Wednesday.
The 32-year-old is the only Samurai Japan player with previous Olympic experience. He also played on the Japan teams that won the World Baseball Classic in 2009 and reached the semifinals in 2013.
There are other players with various national team experience, but many, especially younger players such as 21-year-old reliever Kaima Taira or Masato Morishita, 23, may look to Tanaka to set an example.
“I have gained experience as I’ve gotten older,” Tanaka was quoted as saying. “If there is anything I can tell them, I want to convey that.”
Inaba, who also played with Tanaka on the 2009 and 2013 WBC teams, is counting on the right-hander to be one of the pillars of Japan’s pitching staff, as they strive to climb the mountain they tumbled down together in 2008.
“I expect him to help carry the starting pitchers, along with (Tomoyuki) Sugano,” Inaba said.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.