Baseball

Samurai Japan pitching coach Katori embraces serious demeanor in preparation for 2017 WBC

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The MLB-Japan All-Star Series is sort of a deceiving event, because it’s uncertain what kind of physical condition the players are in and how close they are to their top level.

And some may wonder why the Japan team is pushing so hard like it plays during the season in this exhibition series. It insists that this series is part of its developmental activities for the 2017 World Baseball Classic and its mission to reclaim the title. But obviously you are not going to seriously tune up three years in advance.

So does the Japan national team have to be that earnest?

It does for the sake of the nation’s baseball circles, Japan pitching coach Yoshitaka Katori said.

“We’ve got to bear the responsibility to provide dreams to children,” Katori said before Tuesday’s Game 5 at Sapporo Dome.

All the national teams, not just the men’s top team competing in the MLB-Japan All-Star Series, are now called Samurai Japan. And they wear the same jersey.

Katori, 57, was the manager for the Under-15 boys’ national team and led it to seventh place in this summer’s International Baseball Federation’s Under-15 World Cup in Mexico.

As the skipper this summer, Katori, who was known for his sidearm delivery as a reliever for the Yomiuri Giants (mainly in the 1980s), said that some boys wanted to be like Shohei Otani of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

“Like Otani” means that the kids hope to be two-way players, hitting and pitching.

“One kid says, ‘I’ll do that,’ ” Katori said with a bitter smile. “And then another kid follows, saying, ‘I want to do it, too.’ “

But Katori didn’t condemn them because you shouldn’t criticize the hopes and dreams of youngsters.

“You won’t shut them down like, ‘No, you can’t do it,’ ” Katori said. “You do say, ‘Go for it’ even if he or she clearly doesn’t qualify. Ultimately, it’s important to play as hard as you can.”

(Speaking of being a role model for younger generations, Japan hitting coach Atsunori Inaba was concerned with how the Fighters’ Sho Nakata, Samurai Japan’s cleanup hitter, chews gum noisily during games because it could exert a bad influence on boys and girls playing the sport.)

As for Samurai Japan’s goal at the 2017 WBC, Katori didn’t think it was too early or wrong to start making preparations for it now.

“We don’t have many games to play as the Japanese national team,” he said.

“We have the Premier (12) next year,” he added, referring to the World Baseball Softball Confederation’s new tournament featuring the world’s top-12 ranked nations, “but overall we won’t even have 20 games (to play before the WBC).

“With that circumstance, we are going to have to have measures (to win) and get used to the (WBC) ball. We have to work on (how) our team plays as well.”