SATOZAKI Tomoya: Baseball is a team sport but the ability of each player is key

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Baseball will return to the Olympic programme for the first time since Beijing 2008, where Japan was widely expected to win gold but ended up finishing fourth.

SATOZAKI Tomoya was the catcher on Japan's team that played in Beijing.Tokyo 2020 asked how he spent his time in Beijing, what went through his mind during the competition, and what he thinks of the Olympic national team selection from the point of view of someone who has experienced playing on the world’s greatest stage.

Winning the gold medal was an unconditional order

"Everyone expected us to win the gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Games. Japan won the bronze medal at the Olympic Games Athens 2004 and became the World Baseball Classic champions in 2006, so everyone’s expectations were very high. I personally didn't feel any pressure playing for Japan in Beijing, but finishing fourth was a total failure."

"At the Olympic Games, some baseball games started at 10 o’clock in the morning, and games had to begin on time even when the previous game played extra innings. So unlike professional baseball, where we usually practice before the game for a couple of hours, we only had about 30 minutes to warm up. And if the previous game went into extra innings, we had to wait in the corridor behind the bench until the game ended and then go straight into our game. It was like high school baseball. Maybe the most difficult adjustment we had to make at the Olympic Games was to change our usual routine and adapt.

"We didn’t stay at the Olympic Village in Beijing. We shuffled back and forth between our hotel and the stadium, and although we got a glimpse of Tiananmen Square en route to our hotel, we really couldn’t tell where we were as the days went by. We did have one chance to go to the Olympic Village, and I remember feeling very excited thinking, 'Wow, look at all the famous athletes!'"

Shinnosuke Abe of Japan is congratulated after hitting a solo home run in the fifth inning against the Chinese Taipei during their preliminary baseball game at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (Photo by Mark Dadswell / Getty Images)
Shinnosuke Abe of Japan is congratulated after hitting a solo home run in the fifth inning against the Chinese Taipei during their preliminary baseball game at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (Photo by Mark Dadswell / Getty Images)

Baseball is a team sport, but the ability of each player is the key to winning

"Baseball is a one-on-one match up between the pitcher and the batter, and it’s the same in international games too. When it comes to winning, each player’s ability is what counts. Who is going to prevail, the pitcher or the batter? That’s what it comes down to. At Beijing 2008, we lost to Republic of Korea because we couldn’t get a hit out of their pitcher KIM Kwang-hyun. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s up to the pitcher."

"The Japan national team members are selected just before the Olympic Games. This is because we need players that will produce the best results during the Games. If teamwork is required, it's probably best to send one of the professional teams. In football, the top goalscorer doesn’t necessarily get named in the national team; but in baseball the leading hitter is likely to be selected. In other words, the formation is fixed in baseball, so even if we don’t have much time to practice together, as long as each player is the most able, the team will function well and can win.

"In Beijing, the level of the players was very high so I played to the best of my ability and I really enjoyed it. When I tried to cut down the runner who attempted to steal second base, I’d catch the ball and throw it as quickly as possible and there was already someone at second covering the base. As a national team member, it’s so much fun playing at that level. The only thing different than usual at the Olympic Games is that the opponents are all foreign teams. Just play as you usually would and have fun."

Japan advanced to the final stage at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 but finished fourth, just missing out on a medal
Japan advanced to the final stage at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 but finished fourth, just missing out on a medal

Interest in sport greatly increases because of the Olympic Games

"You can see that the Japanese people get really excited when they see a Japanese athlete win at the Olympic Games. The result is everything. HANEDA Takuya gained attention by winning a medal in canoe (a bronze medallist at Rio 2016) and his achievement helped grow interest in the sport. I hope that baseball's return to the Olympic Games will enable it to be enjoyed by a wider audience, and that people who didn’t pay attention to baseball will discover that it’s a fun sport and even want to try it."

"People say that fewer people play baseball these days, but the [training] environment surrounding baseball is far better than any other sport. You can go down to the side of the river and there’s space for a baseball field. There are still many baseball teams and if there aren’t many players on the team, you always get a chance to play.

"I started using YouTube to share information about baseball. I want to pass on proper knowledge to anyone interested in baseball. For example, you often hear that it’s the catcher’s role to lead the pitcher, but that’s only true if you win the game. A great catcher has a lot of hits or a lot of wins, or both. Results are everything in this world. You are evaluated on your results. So I want people interested in baseball to go from zero to one, then one to ten and ten to a hundred. I hope to be as useful as a textbook to those people."

Players who haven’t yet shown their abilities have a chance to be selected

"If Japan can play their usual game and make no mistakes, they have a great chance to win a gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games. In baseball, the selection of the Olympic team is made in the middle of the professional season, so players who have the best results at that time are selected to the team. If the Olympic Games had taken place as scheduled this year, I think more than half of the members of the 2019 WBSC Premier 12 team would have been selected. Just because a player had a good season this year, that doesn’t mean they would automatically be chosen for next year’s Olympic Games. A player who has yet to play in a first team game could have a great season next year and be selected. Even a rookie who debuts next year could be selected too."

"To be selected to the Japan national team, players must play well next season and produce results. They have to work hard and be prepared for next year. If they produce good results, they have a good chance to play for Japan and enjoy baseball at the highest level.

"Players shouldn’t think too much about the Olympic Games, but just focus on playing well. And if they’re having a great season, they might realise they could very well be selected. Right now, everyone has a chance. It’s going to be exciting to watch who is going to play for Japan in next year’s Games."