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|August 31, 2000||
Japan deprived of Olympic 'dream team'George Nishiyama
Japan may be the most baseball-crazy nation in Asia, but their failure to call up a true "Dream Team" for the Sydney Olympics could result in their toughest medal fight in years.
"It will be a very tough battle indeed," Kozo Otagaki, manager of Japan's national team, said in an interview.
Japan will be sending 24 players, including eight professionals, to Sydney, the first Olympic baseball competition to allow pro players.
But the squad is far from being Japan's best possible line-up as professional teams are conserving their talent for the autumn pennant race, the main prize in domestic baseball.
"Unless the pennant race is suspended, this is the best they can do," said a baseball official who declined to be named.
The Seibu Lions will be sending last season's rookie of the year, pitching sensation Daisuke Matsuzaka, who boasts a fast ball clocking well over 90 miles per hour (145 km/h).
But Atsuya Furuta, considered the best catcher in Japan, will not be in Sydney to partner with Matsuzaka.
The 34-year-old veteran played in regional qualifiers but his team, the Yakult Swallows, decided not to release him for the Olympics.
The Yomiuri Giants, Japan's most popular team and one of the most successful, will not send any of their players.
The decisions have upset some of Japan's rabid baseball fans, who accuse teams of putting financial considerations ahead of national pride in refusing to suspend the pennant race.
"It's a pity that the teams see business as being more important. In the end, they're harming themselves as they are neglecting the fans," said one 40-year-old businessman.
BATTLE OF THE TOP FIVE
Eight countries will compete for baseball gold in next month's Sydney Games and the four that survive round-robin preliminaries will proceed to the semifinals.
Those spots are likely to go to four of the top five teams -- Australia, Cuba, Japan, South Korea and the United States.
Japan won bronze in Barcelona in 1992 and silver in Atlanta four years ago but Otagaki said the inclusion of pro players had drastically changed the balance of power.
"With many (South Korean) professional players taking part and Cuba practicing as the (Olympics) team for three to four weeks, I feel those teams are ahead of us," said Otagaki, adding that unless Japan put in their best performance, they may not even make it out of the preliminary round.
"If it were limited to amateurs, we would certainly make it into the top four," he added.
Japan's Asian rivals South Korea will halt their pro league during the Olympics so that their top players can participate.
They will be sending 23 professionals and one amateur player to Sydney although that will not include Park Chun-ho, their best-known player, who pitches for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Australia, whose baseball has flourished recently following the launch of a pro league 10 years ago, are considered to have a genuine medal chance after winning last year's Intercontinental Cup in Sydney, beating Cuba in the final.
Australia named a team led by former U.S. Major League catcher David Nilsson, an All-Star with Milwaukee in 1999 who has since left for Japan's league to ensure he would be eligible to play for his homeland in Sydney.
Cuba will field an all-amateur line-up, but despite defections by some players to the United States, the team seeking their third consecutive Olympic gold in Sydney are still one of the clear favourites for a medal.
Japan can take some consolation from the fact that the United States are facing similar problems.
Major League players will not be representing the United States as the Olympics also clash with the U.S. pennant race, and the American squad will be comprised of journeymen and minor league players.
Mail Sports Editor
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