Japanese baseball star Koji Uehara on the past, present and future of his sport
Over the course of a stellar career that spanned 20 years and took in both his native Japan and the United States, two-time Olympian Koji Uehara won just about every title there is to win. But, with his sport back on the Olympic programme at Tokyo 2020, Uehara has just one regret...
During Koji Uehara’s long career, he captured the Japan Series twice with the Yomiuri Giants (2000 and 2002) and the World Series with the Boston Red Sox (2013), two of the most storied teams in baseball, and won the inaugural World Baseball Classic (WBC) for his country in 2006. All this on top of the slew of individual accolades the 44-year-old pitcher hauled in before deciding to hang up his glove for good in May 2019.
But despite enjoying the sort of career that most wannabe baseball stars can only dream about, missing out on one particular honour still gnaws at him – an Olympic gold medal.
“Any competition I’m in, I’m out to win it,” Uehara said, just days after the All-Star right-hander tearfully announced his retirement at a Tokyo press conference. “I want to be at the top. The Olympics is the one tournament I came up short in, so I do regret not being able to win it. “I probably didn’t have much of a shot [of competing at Tokyo 2020], but now that I’ve retired, I officially have zero chance. I would have loved to win a gold medal there, but what can you do? Japan has a great shot at a gold this time, with no players from the major leagues and having home advantage.“It’s an absolute privilege to compete at the Olympics. I want them to leave everything out there so they have no future regrets.”
Uehara – who said he would consider an ambassadorial role for Tokyo 2020 if asked – competed at two Olympic Games, winning a bronze medal in Athens in 2004 and missing the podium by a neck at Beijing 2008, following defeat by the United States in the bronze-medal match.
The Osaka native said he considers being selected to represent Japan at those two Games a lifelong honour, but admits to having mixed feelings about them because he failed to achieve his goal of winning a gold medal amid massive expectations at home, where baseball is a national pastime.
The pressure on Japanese players to strike gold in Olympic baseball tournaments intensified to a point of obsession after professionals were allowed to participate from Sydney 2000. Japan has never won a baseball gold medal at the Olympic Games, the nation’s best finish being second place at Atlanta 1996.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t have too many positive memories from the Olympics because we couldn’t win [a gold medal],” said Uehara, who, growing up, remembers watching nine-time gold medallist Carl Lewis and Daichi Suzuki – Seoul 1988 men’s 100m backstroke champion and commissioner of the Japan Sports Agency – on the Olympic stage.
“We were professionals and it was gold medal or bust for us. We had less preparation because we didn’t organise friendlies back then like they do now and, for me, it was the first time to be playing for the flag since I turned pro.
Japan’s got a legitimate shot and I’d love to see us win another medalKoji Uehara Jap
“Beijing was also special because I was selected for the team even though I was in poor form at the time. That really meant a lot to me. I felt compelled to pitch well out of sheer gratitude.
“My team-mates felt as strongly as I did about wanting to win. I played amateur ball so the Olympics were something I always wanted to be a part of. After going pro, I didn’t think I would get a chance to compete at the Olympics, but I did.”
Uehara also said he wanted to be a bigger part of the Olympic party, but complications stemming from the fact that the baseball competition is held in the midst of the Japanese season prevented him from enjoying a full Games experience.
“I do wish we could have stayed at the [Olympic] Village because it would have been a true Olympic experience. I didn’t attend the Opening or Closing Ceremonies, or have the time to watch other events, because we were in the middle of our season. So my experience probably pales a bit compared to other Olympians. I didn’t quite have the feel that I was part of it all.”
In conjunction with softball, baseball will rejoin the Olympic programme for Tokyo 2020 but did not make the cut for Paris 2024. The sport could reappear in 2028 as the Games head to Los Angeles in baseball’s homeland, but doubt remains beyond that.
Uehara hopes baseball can become a permanent fixture at future Games, but with the Major League Baseball-sanctioned WBC gaining steam as the sport’s premier international tournament, Uehara feels maybe it’s time to return Olympic baseball to amateur hands.
“I personally think Olympic baseball should be played by amateurs because it would reflect the true spirit of the Games and give non-professionals something to shoot for. Right now, pros have a stage to perform on while amateurs don’t. It would really help develop the amateur game.”
As a fan, Uehara plans to soak up the athletics at Tokyo 2020, in particular the men’s 4x100m relay, in which the Japanese hope to build on the silver medal they won at Rio 2016.
“The 4x100 is great. Back when the likes of Carl Lewis were competing, no one gave Japanese athletes the time of day in the sprints. Everyone was saying we had no chance. But look at us now, we’re contending and it’s fascinating. Japan’s got a legitimate shot and I’d love to see us win another medal.”