The 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics were the final Olympics that didn't allow professional baseball players to participate. Once again there were eight teams in the tournament. For the first time Taiwan did not qualify, leaving just Japan and the US as the only nations to play in all four Olympics so far. In addition to Japan and the US two other 1992 teams returned - Italy and defending champion Cuba. The other four teams were Australia, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Nicaragua. There were no new countries joining the tournament - all the teams had played in a previous Olympics.
All the games were played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, home of the Atlanta Braves. The stadium was located just to the north of the main Olympic Stadium. After the 1996 season the stadium would be torn down while the Olympic Stadium was transformed into Turner Field, the Braves home from 1997 until 2016.
Once again Japan's 20 man roster was made up of mostly corporate league players - 16 in all - leaving just four roster spots for collegiate players. The head coach was Katsuji Kawashim from Yamaha (who had been a coach for the 1988 squad
). There were three other coaches (one more than the previous teams had had), all from corporate league teams - Tasuru Kakino from Mitsubishi Motors Kawasaki, Kozo Otagaki from Toshiba and Yuji Ijiri (I think) from Nippon Oil. The roster featured one player who had played on the 1992 squad - Masanori Sugiura. Here's the roster of the team:
||1998 Dragons 1st
||1996 Hawks 1st
||1996 Tigers 1st
||1996 Baystars 1st
||Mitsubishi Motors Kawasaki
||Nippon Steel Kimitsu
||1996 Hawks 2nd
||1996 Giants 3rd
||1996 Baystars 2nd
||1996 Buffaloes 6th
||1996 Giants 2nd
||Mitsubishi Motors Kawasaki
||Mitsubishi Motors Kawasaki
||1996 BlueWave 2nd
The format for the tournament was the same as for the 1992 games - all eight teams played games against each of the other seven teams in the first round. The top four teams after this round would go on to the medal rounds. The semi finals would pit the first place team against the fourth place team and the second place team against the third place team. The winners would meet in the gold medal game while the losers would play for the bronze medal.
Japan opened their round robin play by defeating the Netherlands 12-2 in a game that was shortened to 7 innings because of the slaughter rule. Their second game was against Cuba and was a heartbreaker. Cuba had taken a 6-1 lead after two innings but Japan battled back to tie the game at 6 after six innings. The game went into extra innings with Japan pushing a run over in the top of tenth to take a 7-6 lead. But Cuba scored two runs in the bottom of the inning to walk off to an 8-7 win.
The team seemed to suffer the after effects of that loss as they dropped their next game to Australia 9-6 (and had to rally to get three runs in the bottom of the ninth to make it that close) and then gave up seven runs on five home runs (including four in a row) in the top of the first inning of their game against Team USA. Japan scored five runs through the first four innings to get within two runs but the US scored another seven runs in the top of the fifth and added another run in the top of the sixth to make it a 15-5 final score in a game that ended after seven innings due to the slaughter rule.
The loss to the US was a wake-up call for the team though. They took on Nicaragua at 10 AM the morning after the night game against the US and exploded for six runs in the first inning and cruised to a 13-6 victory. They continued their offensive explosion in their final two games of round robin play, defeating Korea 14-4 and Italy 12-1 - both games being again truncated by the slaughter rule.
Japan ended up going 4-3 in round robin play which tied them with Nicaragua for the third best record (behind the undefeated Cuban team and the 6-1 US team). Since Japan had defeated Nicaragua they were ranked third overall with Nicaragua being ranked fourth. As a result, Japan would face Team USA with a spot in the gold medal game on the line.
The pitching matchup for the game pitted Kris Benson of Clemson, Baseball America's College Player of the Year and the overall first pick in the June draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates against Sugiura, who had beaten the US twice during the 1992 Barcelona Games. Benson had won 21 games so far that season, going 14-2 for Clemson and 7-0 for Team USA (including 2-0 so far in the Olympics - he was the winning pitcher in the round robin game against Japan). But this was not Benson's day. He gave up three runs in the top of the second on home runs by Hideaki Okubo and Makoto Imaoka and another home run by Takayuki Takabayashi ended his day in the fifth inning as Japan scored another three runs. Meanwhile Sugiura was cruising, holding a team that had averaged nearly 12 runs and four home runs a game in round robin play scoreless until Matt LeCroy hit a two run home run in the sixth inning. LeCroy's home run made the score 6-2 but Japan added an additional five runs over the the last three innings of the game to make the final score 11-2. With Cuba's 8-1 defeat of Nicaragua it would be Cuba against Japan for the Gold Medal.
Despite having started and thrown five and two thirds innings the day before, Sugiura started the game against Cuba. It did not go well. Cuba got to him for three runs in the first inning (including a home run into the upper deck in left by future Chunichi Dragon Omar Linares) and another pair of runs in the second before he was pulled after 1 2/3 innings. Cuba scored a third run in the second inning off of reliever Jutaro Kimura. Down 6-0 after two innings, Japan clawed their way back, scoring a single run in the fourth inning before exploding for five runs in the fifth (the last four on a grand slam by Nobuhiko Matsunaka) to tie the score at six apiece. But Cuba would take the lead for good in the bottom of the sixth when they scored four runs (including another home run by Linares, this time to right field). Both teams scored a single run in the seventh inning and Cuba scored two more in the eighth (including the third home run of the game by Linares - this one to center field). Japan added two runs in the top of the ninth but it was not enough as Cuba secured their second straight Gold Medal with a 13-9 victory. Japan took silver for the second time (the first being in 1988) while the US defeated Nicaragua 10-3 to win the bronze medal.
Ten members of the team would go on to play professional baseball. Two of the players would become Meikyukai members and a couple of them played in North America. Here's a card and a blurb about each of the professional players.
|2000 Epoch Pro-Baseball Sticker #109|
At 19 years of age Kosuke Fukudome was the youngest player on the Olympic baseball team roster. Fukudome had attended high school at the baseball powerhouse PL Gakuen and after graduation was taken by seven teams in the first round of the fall 1995 draft (Kintetsu, Chunichi, Nippon-Ham, Yomiuri, Lotte, Orix and Yakult). Fukudome had stated before the draft that he was unwilling to sign with any team other than Chunichi or Yomiuri so after Kintetsu won the lottery for him, he announced he was joining Nippon Life of the corporate leagues. He spent three years with Nippon Life before re-entering the draft in 1998 and being taken by the Dragons in the first round. He had a decent rookie season in 1999 as the Dragons regular shortstop (.284 average with 16 home runs) but his career really took off when new manager Hisashi Yamada moved him into the outfield in 2002. He led the Central League in batting that season with a .343 average (which prevented Hideki Matsui from winning the Triple Crown in his final NPB season) and his 186 hits were a team record. He continued to put up good numbers over the next few seasons and had probably his best season in 2006 when won a second batting title in 2006 with an average of .351, hit 31 home runs and had 104 RBIs. He was Central League MVP that season as the Dragons won the last pre-Climax Series Central League pennant. He missed the second half of the 2007 season after suffering an elbow injury and so was unable to play in the Nippon Series that year when the Dragons won their first championship since 1954. He left the Dragons as a free agent after that season and signed with the Chicago Cubs. He ultimately spent five seasons in North America, playing for the Cubs (2008-11), Indians (2011), White Sox (2012) and in the Yankees organization (2012). He returned to Japan for the 2013 season and joined the Hanshin Tigers where he's been ever since. He is the only member of the 1996 Olympic team to still be active. He made the All Star team in Japan five times (1999, 2002-04 and 2006 although he declined to participate in 2006) and once in the US (2008). He won Best 9 awards in 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2015 and Golden Glove awards in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2015. He is a member of the Meikyukai, having reached 2000 hits in NPB & MLB combined in 2016. He played in a second Olympics in 2004 and was a member of the first two Japanese World Baseball Classic teams in 2006 and 2009.
|1998 Calbee #105|
Tadahito Iguchi had been a star at Aoyamagakuin University of the Tohto league before being drafted in the first round of the 1996 draft by the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. He injured his ankle in his first spring training and missed the first month of the season. He hit a grand slam in his first NPB game on May 3rd, becoming the first rookie ever to do so in his debut game. He only hit .203 that season and the Hawks sent him to the West Oahu Canefires of the Hawaiian Winter League after the season to get more playing time. It wasn't until 2001 that he really established himself, hitting .261 that season (the first time he'd gotten his average over .250) with 30 home runs, 97 RBIs and 44 stolen bases. His best season overall was probably 2003, when he .340 with 27 home runs, 109 RBIs and 42 stolen bases. The Hawks released him from his contract after the 2004 season so that he could head to the US and he ended up signing a deal with the Chicago White Sox. He spent 2 1/2 seasons on the South Side, helping the team win it's first World Series in 88 years in 2005 before being traded to the Phillies. He split 2008 between San Diego and the Phillies before returning to Japan and joining the Chiba Lotte Marines in 2009. He spent nine seasons in Chiba before retiring at the end of the 2017 season - hitting a game tying two run home run in the bottom of the ninth of his retirement game. He won Best 9 and Golden Glove awards in 2001, 2003 and 2004 and was named to the All Star team in 2001-2004 and 2009-2013. He lead the Pacific League in stolen bases in 2001 and 2003. He had over 2000 hits in NPB and MLB combined and therefore is in the Meikyukai. He is currently the Marines' manager, a position he was named to just after his retirement as a player.
|2007 BBM 1st Version #273|
Like Fukudome, Makoto Imaoka played high school baseball with PL Gakuen and like Iguchi, he was a star in the Tohto League, playing for Toyo University. He was a first round pick of the Hanshin Tigers in the 1996 draft and he made his debut with them in April of 1997. He split time between second and third base his rookie season before becoming the team's starting shortstop in 1998. His numbers declined over the next two seasons and Katsuya Nomura, the Tigers manager starting in 1999, apparently didn't think too much of him and his playing time decreased accordingly (although he played 123 games for Nomura in 2001). Senichi Hoshino became the team's manager in 2002 and named Imaoka as his starting second baseman. Imaoka responded by hittig .307 with 15 home runs and followed that up with a CL best .340 average the following year as the Tigers won the pennant for the first time since 1985. He started adding power the following season, hitting 28 home runs and he followed that up with 29 home runs and a Central League leading 147 RBIs in 2005, helping the Tigers win another Central League pennant. He suffered an injury to a tendon in his hand in 2006 and he was never the same player afterward. His batting average and his playing time plummeted over the next couple seasons and the Tigers released him following the 2009 season. He signed with the Marines after participating in the 12 team tryout that off season and spent another three seasons with them before retiring at the end of the 2012 season (which he had spent as a player-coach with the ni-gun
Marines). He won three Best 9 awards (2002, 2003 & 2005) and one Golden Glove award (2003) and made the All Star team five times (1998, 2002-2005). He was a TV and radio commentator for a couple seasons after he retired before becoming a coach for the Tigers in 2016 & 17. He's been a coach with the Marines under Iguchi since 2018.
|2004 BBM Baystars #YB07|
Takeo Kawamura spent two seasons playing for Nippon Oil after graduating from Rikkio University of the Tokyo Big Six league. He was the first round pick of the Baystars in the 1996 draft and moved into the team's starting rotation in his rookie season of 1997. He went 10-7 that year and was the Baystars Opening Day starter in 1998, throwing a one hitter against the Tigers. He also started the Baystars final game that season - Game Six of the Nippon Series where he held the Lions scoreless for 7 1/3 innings in a game the Baystars eventually won 2-1 to win their first Nippon Series since 1960 (and first ever in Yokohama). He posted his best season in 1999, going 17-6 with a 3.00 ERA and 131 strikeouts. He made the All Star team in both 1998 and 1999. His numbers declined over the next couple seasons and he was limited to only three games in 2002 due to injuries and ineffectiveness. He found new life out of the bullpen for a couple years starting in 2004 and retired following the 2008 season. He's been a coach off and on for the Baystars since his retirement and will be the ichi-gun
pitching coach this season.
|2004 Calbee #003|
Nobuhiko Matsunaka had five home runs for Japan in the 1996 Olympics, including the game tying grand slam against Cuba in the Gold Medal game. He had spent several seasons playing for Nippon Steel Kimitsu of the corporate leagues (who were managed by Atsuyoshi Otake, one of the catchers on the 1988 Japan National Team) before being drafted in the second round of the 1996 draft by the Hawks. He spent most of his first two seasons with the Hawks farm team (although he did spent the winter of 1997 with Iguchi on the West Oahu Canefires of the Hawaiian Winter League) before establishing himself as a regular in 1999. He had a breakout season in 2000, hitting .312 with 33 home runs and 106 RBIs despite missing time to play in the Olympics again. He won the Pacific League MVP award that season. He would hit over .300 with more than 30 home runs and 100 RBIs each of the next five seasons with the exception of 2002. His best overall season was 2004, when he led the Pacific League in batting (.358) and RBIs (121) and tied for the lead in home runs (44 with Fernando Seguignol). It was the first Triple Crown in NPB since 1986 and the last one to date. He won his second MVP award that season. Age and injuries started to take their toll on him in 2006 and his numbers started to decline (although he rallied for a bit of a comeback in 2008). 2009 was the last season that he played in more than 100 games with the top team although he didn't retire until after the 2015 season. He won five Best 9 awards (2000, 2003-06) and one Golden Glove award (2004) and was named to the All Star team ten times (basically every year between 1999 and 2009 except 2002 although he declined to participate in 2006 due to injury). Besides his Triple Crown season he also led the PL in home runs in 2005 and in RBIs in both 2003 and 2005. In addition to his two Olympic team appearances he also played in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Since his retirement he has done some TV commentary and last fall he was named General Manager of the Kagawa Olive Guyners of the Shikoku Island League.
|2002 BBM Giants #G15|
Koichi Misawa was another collegiate star. He had become Waseda's ace during his freshman year and struck out 17 Rikkio batters in a start during his sophomore season. His 402 career strikeouts are third overall for the Tokyo Big Six, behind Tsuyoshi Wada and Suguru Egawa. His professional career started with him being drafted in the third round of the 1996 draft by the Yomiuri Giants and ended up being a bit of an odyssey. He spent four and a half seasons with the Giants, working mostly out of the bullpen with mixed results before being traded midway through the 2001 season along with Nobunori Tamamine to the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes for Kazuya Tabata and Masaki Maki. He went 7-0 for the Buffaloes down the stretch that season (although with a 4.01 ERA) and pitched in the Nippon Series against the Swallows. He was traded back to the Giants (for Hirotaka Neichi and cash) after the 2003 season and was then let go after the 2004 season. The Swallows picked him up and he spent two injury plagued seasons with them, only appearing in two ichi-gun
games in 2005. The Dragons signed him for the 2007 season after Yakult released him and he spent the entire year on the farm team again before being released. He went to spring training with the Chicago White Sox as a non-roster invitee the next season although he washed out pretty quickly. He ended up signing with the Gary SouthShore RailCats of the Northern League and went 7-1 with a 1.69 ERA out of the bullpen for them. He spent 2009 with the Long Beach Armada of the Golden Baseball League before he announced his retirement early in 2010. He worked for the Giants as an official scorer for a few years afterward before becoming a coach for them in 2017.
|1998 BBM Baystars Get The Flag! II #YB45|
Probably the highlight of Masao Morinaka's collegiate career at Tokai University was a game in the fall of 1996 in which he struck out 19 Musashi University batters, tying a record for the most strikeouts in a Tokyo Metropolitan University Baseball League game. He was the Baystar's second pick in the 1996 draft behind Kawamura and like Kawamura, he opened the 1997 season as a member of the ichi-gun
Baystars. He didn't do very well though - going 0-4 with an ERA of 7.94 in 17 games, mostly in relief. He spent most of 1998 on the farm but he put together two solid years out of the bullpen in 1999 and 2000. His effectiveness fell off after that and Yokohama released him after the 2003 season. He retired after failing a tryout with the Lions and was a batting practice pitcher for the Giants until 2012 when he became an official scorer for the team.
|2000 BBM #382|
Hideaki Ohkubo spent five years playing for Nippon Oil after graduating from Keio University in 1991. At 27 years of age he was the oldest of the Olympic players who went pro. He was drafted by the Kintetsu Buffaloes in the sixth round. He'd been a catcher up until joining the Buffaloes but a shoulder injury caused him to switch position to the outfield. He was with Kintetsu for five years but spent his entire first and last season on the farm team. His best season was 1999 when he hit .305 in 56 games mostly as a pinch hitter. He retired after the 2001 season and spent a few years working in the Buffaloes public relations department before coaching for the Baystars for a couple seasons. After that he coached for his old corporate league team (now called Nippon Oil ENEOS) from 2006 to 2014 before becoming the head coach for his alma mater. He was named manager of what is now Jx ENEOS last December.
|1999 BBM 89|
Hitoshi Ono was another Nippon Oil player on the roster who decided to go professional. He was the Giants second round pick in 1996 and pitched very well on the Giants' farm team - striking out 20 batters in one game and throwing a no-hitter in another - but his experiences with the top team were a different story. His career totals after five seasons with the Giants were 3-8 with a 5.77 ERA in only 36 games (the bulk of which were in 1997 and 1998). He spent all of 2002 on the farm team, posting an Eastern League leading ERA of 1.68 and was traded to the Buffaloes with Yasuo Nagaike after the season for Motohiro Yoshikawa and Hiroyuki Nakahama. He never got off Kintetsu's farm team in 2003, putting up an ERA of 31.91(!) and was released after the season. He somehow wrangled a minor league contract with the Minnesota Twins in 2004 but it doesn't appear that he actually spent any time in their organization. He announced his retirement after not generating any interest at the 12 team tryout after the 2005 season.
|2001 BBM #462|
Yoshitomo Tani is part of an Olympic family. He participated in both the 1996 and 2004 Olympiads while his wife Ryoko
took part in the judo competition in five Olympiads. "Took part" is actually an understatements as she won two gold medals (2000 & 2004), two silver medals (1992 & 1996) and a bronze (2008). Tani was a collegiate star at the Osaka School Of Commerce, winning an Kansai Big Six Triple Crown one season and won an MVP award along with three Best 9 awards. He spent two seasons playing for Mitsubishi Motors Kawasaki before heading back to Kansai after being drafted in the second round by the Orix BlueWave in 1996. He became a regular with Orix relatively quickly, playing in over 101 games in his rookie season. He followed that up with a couple solid seasons before hitting over .300 for the first time in 2001. He'd end up hitting over .300 in six of the nine seasons between 2001 and 2009. His best season overall was probably 2003 when he hit .350 with 21 home runs, 92 RBIs and a PL leading 189 hits - a Pacific League record for a right handed hitter. He had a back injury in 2005 that limited him to a .248 average and suffered an elbow injury in 2006 limiting him to .267. Orix traded him to Yomiuri after the season for Masahiro Nagata and Takashi Kamoshida and he had a comeback season in 2007, hitting .318 and making the All Star team. He posted two more solid season with the Giants before competition with younger players started cutting into his playing time. 2009 would be the last season he'd appear in more than 100 games and hit over .300. After he only appeared in 13 games with the ichi-gun
team in 2013 the Giants released the 40 year old Tani. He returned to Orix and played two more seasons with them although it was mostly with their farm team - he only got into 20 games with the top team. He retired after the 2015 season. He won five Best 9 awards (1999, 2001-04), four Golden Glove awards (2001-04) and made the All Star time six times (2001-04, 2006-07). In addition to leading the PL in hits in 2003 he also lead the league in stolen bases in 2002. He's been a baseball critic for the Daily Sports newspaper since retiring.
In addition to the professionals there are a couple other players from the team that had baseball cards.
|2002 BBM Japanese National Team #16|
|2002 BBM Japanese National Team #20|
Takashi Kurosu and Yasuyuki Saigoh were both members of the Japanese team for the 2001 Baseball World Cup
and appeared in BBM's box set for the team. Kurosu retired as an active player following that tournament but Saigoh continued playing in the corporate leagues until age 43 in 2015.
|2017 BBM Infinity #045|
Sugiura was the one player on the roster that had previous Olympic experience. He missed the first half of the games with a leg injury but ended up getting into four games in the last week of the tournament, picking up a victory against Korea as well as beating the US in the semi-final game. He would return for a final time in the 2000 Olympics.
One last thing - I picked up a publication on the history of the Japanese National Team
last week and I swiped a couple photos from their pages on the 1996 team: