Atsunori Inaba hadn’t even been officially unveiled as the next Samurai Japan manager for 10 minutes when NPB commissioner Katsuhiko Kumazaki told him he carried the hopes and dreams of the public into the upcoming Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and World Baseball Classic in 2021. Samurai Japan Strengthening Committee director Atsushi Ihara informed him his job was to win an Olympic gold medal.
Not that there’s any pressure or anything.
Ihara made the news that first came out around two weeks ago official on Monday, announcing Inaba as the next manager of the national team and tasking him with leading Japan into both the 2020 Games and the next World Baseball Classic.
“We have the Olympics coming up in 2020 and this is such an important event because baseball will be returning,” Inaba said. “I’ve been given the role as the manager of the team and I just feel so appreciative of the opportunity right now.”
Inaba, who turns 45 on Thursday, takes the reigns from Hiroki Kokubo, who stepped down in March following Japan’s run to the semifinals at the World Baseball Classic earlier this year. As was the case with Kokubo in 2013, the job will be Inaba’s first as a manager. He’ll make his debut during the three-team Asia Professional Baseball Championship in November at Tokyo Dome.
“I don’t have any managerial experience, so I was a little worried (when offered the job), but I wanted to do it in order to lead the team for the Olympics three years from now,” he said. “That feeling was greater than my apprehension, and that’s why I accepted the offer.”
Inaba still enters the role with more experience than Kokubo, who had none. Inaba was a player/coach for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in 2013 and a hitting coach for Samurai Japan under Kokubo from the spring of 2015. Inaba also played for Japan during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and at the World Baseball Classic in 2009 (when the Japanese won the title) and 2013.
“I think it’s very important to have someone with such rich international experience shoulder the burden of leading the team to a gold medal, which is our goal,” Ihara said.
One of Inaba’s biggest challenges will be meeting that goal without the services of any Japanese players who may be in the major leagues in 2020, as MLB has strongly indicated it will not release its players for the Olympics.
“I don’t think Major League Baseball is participating, so I think it will be difficult (to have major leaguers),” Inaba said. “But we have so many great young players. We have the Asia Championship in November, so I would like to test some of the players there with the Olympics in mind.”
The new manager was asked about high school sensation Kotaro Kiyomiya, the slugging Waseda Jitsugyo High School first baseman who hit 107 home runs during his prep career to tie a high school record.
“He has great talent for sure, and I have interest in him,” Inaba said. “he’s hit 107 home runs. I don’t think that will be broken for a while.
“He’s got a big body, can hit home runs and has power. You don’t really see power-hitting left-handed batters now. There’s (Yuki) Yanagita (of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks) now, but you don’t see that come up very often.”
Inaba was a decorated player himself during a 20-year NPB career with the Yakult Swallows and the Fighters. He ended his playing days with 2,167 hits and 261 home runs and an .806 on-base plus slugging percentage. He made five Best Nine teams, won five Golden Gloves and was an All-Star eight times. Inaba was also the MVP of the 2006 Japan Series.
The Fighters retired his No. 41 after his final season and he currently serves as team’s Sports Community Officer. He traded his Nippon Ham No. 41 for a pinstriped No. 80 Samurai Japan uniform, which Kumazaki helped him into, on Monday.
Inaba’s first tournament in charge will come in November during the Asia Professional Baseball Championship, a three-team tournament that will feature Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The event will be held Nov. 16-19, with Inaba and Japan facing South Korea in the opening game.
As for the next edition of the WBC, the new manager is focusing on the Olympics first.
“I consider the 2021 WBC a different animal,” he said, noting some of the rule differences between the two events. “Right now I’m focused on the Olympics and winning a gold medal there. We’ll pour all our effort into that.”
Staff Writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to the report