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Sunday, Aug. 24, 2008

ODDS AND EVENS

Japan leaves Beijing with nothing but regrets


BEIJING — What went wrong for "Hoshino Japan" at the 2008 Summer Olympics?

Ed Odeven

Well, Japan got off to a bad start — losing 4-2 to Cuba in the teams' tournament opener on Aug. 13 — and never really recovered, stumbling to a 4-4 record, including a pair of losses to South Korea and an 8-4 setback to the United States in the bronze medal game.

Japan never expected to be denied a medal. A fourth-place finish is a disastrous result for manager Senichi Hoshino, especially when one considers his cast of players is comprised of Nippon Professional Baseball's top stars.

The American squad was comprised of minor leaguers. South Korean baseball has not achieved the international reputation of its Asian rival. Nor has it been compared to Team USA and Cuba in terms of talent and overall ability.

"Please stop saying the Korean team is weaker than us," Hoshino told reporters after Japan's 6-2 loss to South Korea in the semifinals on Friday. "Actually, they are a very strong team. Next time we should say they are a strong team."

Hoshino's definition of next time could mean one of two things: the 2009 World Baseball Classic or, possibly, 2016 if baseball regains its status as an Olympic sport after the London Summer Games. Either way, the loss will sting for a long, long time.

"We all came here for the gold medal, but maybe the Korean team had a stronger desire to win the gold medal," Japan captain Shinya Miyamoto said. "I think maybe that is one of the reasons (we lost)."

There are stark differences between the 2006 WBC champion and the 2008 Japan Olympic team. For one, WBC manager Sadaharu Oh is an active NPB manager. He manages — or manages against — all the players from the 12-team league at some point during the season in his post as the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks skipper. He faces the pressure of making moves 144 games a year. This always keeps him in a managerial state of mind.

I won't suggest Hoshino isn't a quality manager in his own right. He earned a reputation as a winner during his playing days with the Chunichi Dragons and became a well-respected manager during his time running the Hanshin Tigers. But Hoshino hasn't managed in the NPB since 2003, when he stepped down after guiding the Tigers to the Central League pennant. That fact hasn't helped him in this tournament.

News photo
Mouthing off: Yu Darvish's comments before the Olympics did little to help his team in Beijing. KYODO PHOTO

Yes, Hoshino does have a pulse on the strengths and weaknesses of his team, but several of his decisions, such as using reliever Hitoki Iwase in the eighth inning on Friday, came back to haunt him.

The timing of the Olympics, in the second half of the baseball season, didn't help matters, either. Players put aside their professional careers for two weeks, but their teams' accomplishments and struggles remained in the back of their minds.

The Olympic men's basketball tournament, on the other hand, happens after the NBA and other professional leagues have completed their seasons. This gives players a chance to recover physically and mentally from the wear and tear of the season.

During the Olympics it is unclear how the future uncertainty of the sport affected Japan's players on the field. Did they feel too much pressure to win a gold now? Or did they actually lack motivation despite what was said to the contrary in public?

Talented right-hander Yu Darvish may have created unnecessary distractions for his team with some of the public remarks he made.

"For me, the rising sun flag is just a painting on a cloth," Darvish was quoted as saying.

"Playing in the Olympics isn't one of my goals. It means nothing to me."

Two of Japan's most beloved players, Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka, didn't play in the Olympics. Neither did Hiroki Kuroda nor Kosuke Fukudome. They could have made a differencefor Hoshino in Beijing.

But the veteran skipper already had enough overall talent to win the tournament. His team never found the right combination of dominant offense and defense over a long enough stretch of time.

So now it faces the reality of its failure: four wins, fivelosses, fourth place.

Ouch. Those results will produce painful memories for a long, long time.



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