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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

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Join the club: Atsunori Inaba hits an RBI single to right to record the 2,000th hit of his career on Saturday in Sendai. KYODO


Inaba, Miyamoto reach greatness despite first-round snub

When Kensuke Tanaka and Sho Nakata both apologized to Atsunori Inaba after recording outs that denied the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters veteran a shot at reaching the 2,000-hit milestone last Thursday at Tokyo Dome, Inaba knew he had to get things done quickly.

Jason Coskrey

So he did, carving out a little slice of NPB history in his very next at-bat, on Saturday in Sendai against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, with an RBI single that made him one of only 39 players to reach 2,000 hits in Japan.

Soon he'll share that distinction with Tokyo Yakult Swallows infielder Shinya Miyamoto, who with 1,996 hits is poised to soon become the 40th to 2,000.

It's fitting the pair will, barring injury, join the Meikyukai, or Golden Players club, in the same season. They may have taken differing routes to the achievement, but the decorated veterans began their journey in the same place, with the Yakult Swallows.

Unless there was a crystal ball involved, there's no way the Swallows knew what they had on their hands during the 1994 draft.

But that's the funny thing about drafting players. No matter how much you think you know, the whole thing is essentially just one big crapshoot. Quite a few players pegged for greatness flame out, while other prospects, thought of as little more than warm bodies, end up in the Hall of Fame.

The supposed can't-miss players are generally drafted early, and in 1994 pitcher Tetsuya Kitagawa was the Swallows' first choice. Yakult selected Miyamoto in the second round and grabbed Inaba in the third.

Kitagawa retired in 1999 with four career wins and a 5.18 ERA. Miyamoto, meanwhile, is in his 18th season and has a career average of .283 and eight gold gloves. Inaba has been even better, with a career average of .291 to go along with 249 home runs and 977 RBIs.

Between them, Miyamoto and Inaba have been apart of four Japan Series winning teams — three as teammates with Yakult in 1995, 1997, and 2001 and then Inaba's triumph with the Fighters in 2006. They were also members of Japan's triumphant 2006 World Baseball Classic squad.

Inaba won the WBC a second time in 2009, while Miyamoto is the owner of an Olympic bronze medal, won at the 2004 Games.

Of course, there was no way to know any of that in 1994. Back then no team would even use a first-round selection on them, and Inaba, who has had the more prolific career, had to wait until the third round.

Looking back, the only first-rounder to make a major impact over the years was Kenji Johjima, selected by the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, though Saburo Omura chosen by the Chiba Lotte Marines, has had a productive career.

An incredible work ethic propelled Miyamoto and Inaba to new heights, and reaching 2,000 hits will help put their careers into perspective.

It's one thing to hang on for as long as they have, but to continue to be viable long enough to reach these heights is something few players do.

Inaba deserved the cheers that came his way on Saturday and Miyamoto will have paid his dues for his spot in the sun when his time comes.

They began their careers together 18 years ago and now, likely no more than a week or two apart, they'll each take a big step toward cementing a positive legacy in the game.

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