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Fan-favorite Inaba jumping into sunset

by

Staff Writer

Atsunori Inaba may have been Japan’s most popular player among foreign fans during the 2013 World Baseball Classic. The quadrennial competition doesn’t just bring 16 nations together, it allows the baseball cultures of various nations to come together. Prominent among these is Japan’s ouendan.

One of Inaba’s ouenka (cheer song) is among the most well-known in Japan, if not the most well known. The “Inaba Jump,” as it’s known, usually comes out when Inaba comes up with a runner in scoring position. At that time, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters fans will jump up and down and sing a melody along with the trumpets some supporters blow.

It’s a sight to behold upwards of 30,000 people bouncing in unison. Sapporo Dome vibrates to the rhythm of their bouncing underneath your feet, while fans at home see the picture on their television bounce wildly.

The cheer was brought along with Inaba during his stint with Samurai Japan. While NPB fans were already well-versed in the routine, it was probably a first for many at the WBC. The infectious nature of the cheer caught on as fans of other nations got in on the act. In a way, Inaba had brought the baseball world a little closer together.

There are only so many more Inaba Jumps left. The veteran outfielder announced his intention to retire after the season during a press conference in Sapporo on Tuesday. His final regular-season home game is scheduled for Oct. 1 — though sometimes makeup games are added later — and fans might shake Sapporo Dome off its foundations for Inaba’s final at-bats.

“The cheering called the Inaba Jump even makes the foreign players say it’s awesome, and I don’t think there’s any type of cheer like it when you look around the world,” Inaba said during the televised news conference on Tuesday. “I was fortunate to receive it. To be honest, I don’t know who first said let’s do it, but I’m really grateful for it and it’s now commonplace and everybody’s jumping. So I really appreciate it and I have nothing but the feeling of thank you now.”

Inaba turned 42 last month, so retirement was coming sooner rather than later. It’s arrival, however, was hastened by a balky knee.

“I decided to put everything on the line for one year, but the condition of my knee just won’t get any better,” Inaba was quoted as saying by Kyodo News during the news conference. “I made the decision when I realized that I couldn’t hit anymore.”

When Inaba hangs up his spikes, he’ll leave behind a career that was more than the sum of his numbers. That’s not to say he hasn’t delivered in that category.

Entering Wednesday’s games, Inaba, in his 20th season, had a .286 career average with 259 home runs, 1,038 RBIs and a .798 on-base plus slugging percentage. He’s a member of the 2,000-hit club and a five-time Best Nine Selection.

In 2001, Inaba helped lead the Yakult Swallows to the Japan Series title and was the MVP of the Japanese Fall Classic in 2006 with the Fighters. He was also on the Japan team that won the 2009 WBC.

His influence in Sapporo will live on beyond all that.

The Fighters had for years co-habitated with the Yomiuri Giants — at Korakuen Stadium and then Tokyo Dome — and played before sparse crowds as the Kyojin drew packed houses. The team packed its bags after the 2003 season and headed north to Hokkaido to establish its own fanbase.

Inaba was in the final stages of his career with the Swallows at that time. Following the 2004 season, he exercised his free agency option and left for America hoping to begin a career in the majors. When that failed to come to fruition, he returned to Japan, latching on with the Fighters, who were about to embark on their second season in their new home.

Inaba quickly ingratiated himself with the team and the community at large. He was a quickly a fan favorite while helping the team plant roots in Sapporo that will last for years to come. He’s among the franchise’s most beloved figures now and has mentioned building a house and remaining in Hokkaido after retirement.

Which brings us back to the Inaba Jump taking hold in an MLB park during the WBC. Because history, for both Inaba and the Fighters, might be much different had he succeed in earning an MLB deal.

The majors will have to remain an unscratched itch. Inaba ended up doing pretty well for himself, as an influential and highly regarded member of two franchises.

That’s enough to make anyone jump for joy.