Funny as it seems, being passed over for the major leagues might have been the best thing that could have happened to Atsunori Inaba.
In the years since attempting to test the MLB waters, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters outfielder has established himself as one of the NPB’s elite players.
Beloved on the northern island of Hokkaido, Inaba’s overall star power was on display Monday when it was announced he received the most fan votes of any player for the 2009 All-Star Series.
The 36-year-old Inaba picked up 498,353 votes, finishing far ahead of the Central League leader Hiroshima Carp first baseman Kenta Kurihara’s 441,480. Inaba also received the most votes among the NPB players with player votes.
Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto was second among the players with 467.
“I’m really pleased I was chosen by the players as well,” Inaba told media after the announcement. “I’d like to do something I don’t normally do. I will aim to hit a home run as well.”
Inaba is 5-for-14 (.357) with no homers or RBIs in eight all-star appearances.
He’s been extremely consistent in his five years with the team since joining as a free agent in 2005. Inaba has batted at least .300 and driven in at least 75 runs in each of the last three seasons with the Fighters.
A third-round draft pick of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, Inaba spent 10 seasons with the Central League club and was a part of three Japan Series winners.
He found no takers when he attempted to move to the majors after the 2004 season and was forced to remain in Japan, where he signed with the Fighters.
His career has flourished since as he helped anchor a Japan Series winner in 2006, batted .334 with 17 homers and 87 RBIs to lead the Fighters to the PL pennant in 2007, and helped the team reach the second stage of the PL Climax Series for the third straight season in 2008.
His year started earlier than usual this season when he was called upon by Tatsunori Hara to join Samurai Japan at the World Baseball Classic. There he batted .318, playing a role in Japan’s successful defense of the WBC title.
Inaba’s bat stayed hot as the 2009 regular season began with the former Japan Series MVP batting .333 with 10 home runs and 48 RBIs through Wednesday for Japan’s top offense.
Through Tuesday, he was 10th among active players with a .292 career average, 15th with 779 RBIs and 16th with 210 home runs.
He’ll get to show off his skills for the home crowd on July 24 when the first game of the All-Star Series is held at Sapporo Dome.
The second game of the series is scheduled for June 25 in Hiroshima’s new Mazda Stadium.