The most coveted gold medal for the Olympic host nation next year? A strong case can be made for its national sport of baseball, which returns to the Olympic program — at the request of Tokyo organizers — for the first time since 2008.
Japan never took gold the five times baseball was previously on the Olympic medal program. It came agonizingly close, reaching at least the semifinals in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008.
While MLB never sent its best to the Games, players from Japan’s top league have participated, including Masahiro Tanaka, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, before they came became big leaguers.
In summer 2021, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) is expected to take a break in its season to send another All-Star team to the Tokyo Olympics. There is debate about who is Japan’s best active NPB player.
There is consensus who is the most popular.
Hayato Sakamoto is in line to be one of the faces of the Tokyo Olympics across all sports. He was labeled “the Derek Jeter of Japan.” English-speaking Japanese baseball experts concur. Sakamoto is the bachelor shortstop and captain of the Yomiuri Giants, the most storied NPB franchise.
“Every aspect of what Derek Jeter was, Sakamoto is that,” said Scott Mathieson, a Canadian pitcher who retired last year after playing the last eight seasons on Sakamoto’s Giants. “He’s the biggest leader. Everyone looks up to him.”
Sakamoto, 31, is an 11-time All-Star coming off his first Central League MVP season. He smacked a career-high 40 home runs in 2019 and is en route to becoming one of the youngest players to reach 2,000 hits in NPB history (one player has reached 3,000 hits).
Sakamoto has been big ever since he was little. He went to the same elementary school and played on the same little league team as Tanaka. In Japanese youth baseball, the best athlete pitches, and Sakamoto was on the mound and Tanaka behind the plate growing up, said Dan Evans, a former Los Angeles Dodgers GM who scouted players in Japan for the last two decades.
As a 19-year-old in 2008, Sakamoto reportedly became the first Yomiuri Giants rookie to start on Opening Day since Hideki Matsui. In 2015, venerable catcher Shinnosuke Abe gave up the captain title to Sakamoto in a formal ceremony, four years before Abe retired.
“Sakamoto’s probably the most popular [player in NPB] since [Shohei] Ohtani left,” said Jason Coskrey, a Detroit native who has covered baseball for the Japan Times since 2007. “Even though Abe might be the most revered.”
Evans said Abe is the greatest Japanese player in the last 30 years who never came to MLB. Sakamoto, No. 2 on that list, regularly asked Mathieson how he would fare in the big leagues. But when you’re captain of the Yomiuri Giants (and previously captain-in-waiting), there can be pressure to stay home.
“I personally think he always wanted to go to the major leagues and really challenge himself there,” Mathieson said. “I think he felt like he couldn’t go.
“It’s hard to leave when he’s the man over there.”
In the unlikely scenario that MLB participates in the Olympics for the first time, the 25-year-old Ohtani might not outrank Sakamoto.
“If they walk side by side on the street, everybody would run to Sakamoto,” Mathieson said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an 80-year-old woman or a 7-year-old girl or boy, they’re going to recognize him. When he goes in the street, he wears a mask and he wears a hat. He can’t really go anywhere.”
It seems logical that Sakamoto follows Abe’s path and sticks with the Giants until retirement. But Evans remembers fixing his eyes on Sakamoto at the World Baseball Classic in 2013 and 2017, when the shortstop went up against big leaguers. Sakamoto stared as they took batting practice and infield.
“At that stage of your career, when you’ve been playing 10 years already, that tells me a lot about him,” Evans said. “He gives a damn.”
Then Sakamoto should know the stakes of Olympic baseball in Tokyo. The Japanese will assemble their best domestic players. The U.S. is expected to send minor leaguers (assuming it qualifies).
When it was best on best, the U.S. edged Japan 2-1 at the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Last November, a U.S. team of minor leaguers stunned a Sakamoto-led Japanese team at the Premier12 global tournament inside the Tokyo Dome (which won’t be used at the Olympics).
“I think they feel more pressure from the Olympics because they’re expected to win,” Mathieson said. “They’re obviously sending their best, who have proven they can compete against major-league players. Now they’re competing against minor-league players, and if they lose, it’s an embarrassment.”
If they win, Sakamoto can claim a title that no other Japanese legend can boast: Olympic champion.
A non-medal baseball exhibition was held at the 1964 Tokyo Games, but Sadaharu Oh didn’t take part at the peak of his career when the Olympics were for amateurs.
Hideo Nomo was on Japan’s second-place team at the 1988 Seoul Games, when it was a non-medal sport and seven years before his watershed move to MLB.
When Ichiro had an opportunity to play at the Olympics in 2000, he reportedly rebuffed.
The opportunity is ripe. In 2010, Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal to lift Canada to an Olympic hockey title in Vancouver. In 2016, Neymar booted the shootout winner of the Olympic soccer final in Rio.
Sakamoto, who was recently diagnosed with the coronavirus (a minor case, Mathieson said, and he was reportedly released from the hospital), is already the talisman of Japan’s most storied franchise. In summer 2021, he can lead the national team to the very biggest prize of the Tokyo Olympics: a first gold medal for Samurai Japan.
This Japanese team will play under considerable weight, compounded by the fact that there will be no Olympic baseball in 2024. A successful tournament in 2021 could boost a bid for the sport’s return at the 2028 Los Angeles Games, by which a whole new generation of Japanese will be playing.
“This group has spent the last 20 years waking up in the morning to watch Ichiro, to watch Matsui, to watch Nomo play,” Evans said. “This is the best collection of talent in the history of the league.”
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