One of the common threads in the comments from many of Japan’s top players before spring training was about how much each was motivated by the prospect of trying to win gold on home soil during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
They can still do that, they’ll just be doing it in the 2020 Games held in 2021. That’s a result of the expected, but no less momentous, consensus reached earlier in the week by the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government that the Tokyo Games will have to be delayed because of the coronavirus crisis.
The decision, unprecedented in times of peace, will have ramifications that will stretch out across the sports world, and baseball won’t be excluded.
“It can’t be helped,” Hiroshima Carp outfielder Seiya Suzuki was quoted as saying by Sports Nippon on Wednesday. “The Olympics is special and it was going to be held in Tokyo. I don’t know when exactly it will happen, but I’ll just be 26, so still young. But one year is big. I don’t know what will happen if I get hurt this season.”
Nearly every step the Samurai Japan apparatus has taken since the 2017 World Baseball Classic has been with an eye on the Olympics. That’s including hiring Atsunori Inaba to manage the team with a mandate to win a gold medal, which would be Japan’s first in Olympic baseball.
Japan isn’t going to throw Inaba overboard, but a lot of his preparations may have to be re-calibrated. The momentum he’d built by leading Japan to the title at the Premier12 in November will also have completely dissipated by the time the Olympics finally roll around.
That Premier12 team, with the exception of new major leaguers Shogo Akiyama (originally on the team before an injury in a warmup game) and Shun Yamaguchi, was expected to form the crux of the Olympic squad. It would also likely have been reinforced by players such as Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano and Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks pitcher Kodai Senga and Hawks outfielder Yuki Yanagita.
Inaba may now have to alter some of his plans, given the amount of things that can change in a year. Some players will fall out of favor, new candidates will emerge and health is guaranteed to no one.
It’s also not a certainty all of Inaba’s initial targets will still be in Japanese baseball, even Sugano. Just a few months ago, it was almost sacrilege to think the Giants might post Sugano. But that was before Yamaguchi’s escape to North America, which means anything, whether likely or not, is at least possible for any of Japan’s players.
If a national team candidate moves to MLB after this season, they’re likely lost to Japan. If MLB wasn’t going to cooperate and send players to the 2020 Games before the current COVID-19 crisis, no one should expect it to in 2021 either.
Which brings us to Tetsuto Yamada, who by all indications was very excited to compete in the Olympics.
The Tokyo Yakult Swallows infielder is one of the very best players in Japan, a key member of the national team and a stud MLB teams should be drooling over — assuming he actually wants to make the move. He hasn’t given many, if any, signs either way.
Yamada would’ve been in the middle of things during a 2020 Games actually held in 2020. If, however, he does get the MLB itch and pushes to be posted, and has that wish granted, he’d be out of the Olympic rotation, which would be a big blow for Japan.
The delay means if Yamada wants to play in both the Olympics and MLB, he’ll have to put off his (possible) aspirations to be posted and play through the 2020 and 2021 NPB campaigns before becoming able to make the jump.
In all, there is the potential for a lot of moving pieces for Japan going forward following the IOC decision.
After winning the Premier12, Samurai Japan looked ready to knock it out of the park at the Tokyo Games. Now the nation, and the sports world at large, has to adjust to a curveball that would make Clayton Kershaw proud.