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Indecision could prove costly for Japan

By Wayne Graczyk


TOKYO—In the same way that Japan's Central and Pacific Leagues disagree on the use of the DH, officials of the two major league circuits couldn't reach an accord to alter their regular-season schedules and send professional players to the Sydney Olympics.

The indecision could well cost Japan an Olympic baseball medal in competition with such power-packed rosters from Cuba, Korea and the United States, plus the host Australian team.

Pacific League people (who like the DH) wanted to suspend the regular season and have Japan's 12 pro clubs send their best players to the Land Down Under. Central League bosses (who hate the DH) came down adamantly against any delay and refused to let any star players leave in the middle of a hot pennant race.

The result is that only eight Japanese major leaguers, one all-star from each of the six PL teams and two token reserves from CL clubs, joined a group of industrial leaguers and amateurs in Sydney.

Japanese Olympic team manager Kozo Otagaki (from Toshiba Electric of Japan's industrial league) will be counting on Seibu Lions phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka and Chiba Lotte Marines righthander Tomohiro "Johnny" Kuroki to anchor his pitching staff. PL home-run-title contenders Norihiro Nakamura of the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Nobuhiko Matsunaka of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks will power the offense. Shortstop Yukio Tanaka of the Nippon Ham Fighters and outfielder So Taguchi of the Orix BlueWave also will play key roles, with Tanaka most likely the DH.

The team could not get Yakult Swallows star catcher Atsuya Furuta or Yomiuri Giants ace Koji Uehara, but it has backup backstop Fumihiro Suzuki of the Chunichi Dragons and second-line Hiroshima Carp pitcher Masato Kawano.

Matsuzaka, the Pacific League leader with 16 wins last season, topped the PL again this year with 12 victories through Sept. 11. His 129 strikeouts in 149 innings also led the league, and his 4.36 ERA ranked fifth. He's known for his 152-kph (95-mph) fastball.

Kuroki was 14-10 with a 2.50 ERA (second-best in the PL) last season, but he has had an off year in 2000. Kuroki has gone 7-11, 5.92, though his 112 strikeouts in 128 innings are the third-highest total in the league.

Nakamura left for Australia with the PL lead in homers (37) and RBI (106), while Matsunaka ranked second in both categories (33 and 103, respectively). Matsunaka batted cleanup on the 1996 Olympic team, homering in both medal-round games. Overall, he finished second among all players with 16 RBI and tied for third with five homers in nine games.

The most recognizable industrial leaguer on the Olympic team is Nihon Life Insurance righthander Masanori Sugiura. Sugiura pitched Japan to an 11-2 upset win over Kris Benson and Team USA in the semifinals of the 1996 Olympics, then started again the next day in the gold-medal game versus Cuba. Sugiura gave up five runs in 1 2/3 innings receiving no decision as Cuba won 13-9.

Other key industrial leaguers are East Japan Railways outfielder Norihiro Akahoshi, Mitsubishi Motors outfielder Yoshihiko Kajiyama, Nihon Life Insurance infielder Osamu Nogami and Nippon Telephone & Telegraph infielder Yoshinori Okihara. The top collegians are Chuo University catcher Shinnosuke Abe and Ritsumei University pitcher Akichika Yamada.

Since there is no time difference between Tokyo and Sydney, all Olympic baseball tournament games involving the Japanese team will be televised live throughout Japan by NHK, the government TV network. High viewer ratings are expected, despite the fact the Japanese public knows their nation could have fielded a much better team with more professionals had the CL leaders been more flexible.

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