Redemption song: after 13 years, INABA Atsunori hits right note by leading Japan to top of baseball podium

The Samurai Japan manager tasted defeat at the hands of U.S. for bronze at Beijing 2008. At Tokyo 2020, Inaba is tasting champagne in giving the hosts their first gold medal in baseball, and Ohtani Shohei shares why it means so much.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

OHTANI Shohei must be loving it.

On Saturday (8 August) at Yokohama Stadium, Japan captured the Olympic baseball gold medal with a 2-0 victory the United States, a title the Games' host country had been desperate for.

Japan won the gold at Los Angeles 1984 when baseball was still an exhibition sport, so Sunday's Tokyo 2020 triumph is the first official one. The closest Japan had previously come was at Atlanta 1996, where they won silver.

Ohtani was very much a part of that chase for gold, until he left for the majors in 2018, so he had to be thrilled to see his former Samurai Japan teammates top the podium.

Ohtani probably had another reason to be happy: the manager of Japan, INABA Atsunori, was a teammate his first two years in professional baseball with Japan's Nippon Ham Fighters.

He took over the national team three years after he retired in 2014. As a player Inaba, 49, was always one of the glue guys, not a hotshot superstar but unassuming, dependable, and reliable.

As skipper, Inaba has had the same demeanor, putting the team first, caring about his staff, caring about his players.

Saturday was no different.

"It's just great to see the guys so happy", Inaba said. "They really worked hard for this. It's a huge load off my shoulders.

"Us winning gold allowed us to show the world how good Japan are in baseball. I think we have a responsibility to help spread the game and I hope this achievement aids that.

"I've been saying for the last four years that our goal was to win a gold medal. I asked a lot of players to participate in our programme but the 24 who are here - I could not have a better 24 and to produce a fantastic result like this with them is nothing short of wonderful".

The game was actually personal to Inaba, although if you didn't mention it he might not.

The last time baseball was part of the Olympic programme was at Beijing 2008, where Japan lost to the U.S. in the bronze-medal game. Inaba was part of that team.

Fast forward 13 years. Inaba got his shot at redemption, and he seized it - with much more at stake for Japan this time.

Deep down inside, Inaba had to be over the moon by Saturday's feat the baseball-mad country had only been able to flirt with over the decades.

But there he was again, shielding the attention and thanking those around him when it should be Japan thanking him as the nation needed this win in so many ways.

"Losing to them in Beijing was tough for me personally. But this wasn't about getting back for Beijing. It was about winning the Tokyo Olympics. I'm just really glad we managed to achieve that", Inaba said.

"To me, these Games are all about gratitude. We pay everyone back by winning and I like to think we've been able to do that. When (second baseman Ryosuke) Kikuchi put the medal around me, I felt the weight of it all.

"I was really happy to have the gold medal finally".

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Picture by 2021 Getty Images