What baseball should do to ensure a spot in future Olympics
When it comes to this nation's stick-and-ball sports as worthy Olympic pursuits, the United States apparently is damned if it dominates and damned if it doesn't.
When the 2008 Beijing Games end this weekend, so too will baseball and softball as official events among the 28 medal sports. (Modern pentathlon gets the boot as well from London 2012, but that's less of a loss; whenever we crave a five-tool hero -- running, swimming and horseback riding, proficient in both gunplay and swordplay -- Hollywood always seems to provide one, from James Bond to Jack Bauer.)
For the men, it seems mostly that their players are not good (or famous) enough. For the women, the penalty seems to be that they are too good. They have won every gold medal since the sport was added in 1996, and are cruising toward another gold in Beijing (having outscored opponents 53-1). Beating the U.S. women has become as unlikely as trying to outbid Oprah on eBay. Led by dominant stars like pitchers Cat Osterman and Jennie Finch, Team USA dwarfs the other teams' efforts and rendering softball about as pleasurable to the rest of the world as bullfighting is to the livestock.
The U.S. baseball team, however, lacks the star power -- and, with just one gold medal, the success -- of its softball counterparts. Indeed, one of the complaints lodged against baseball in 2005 when the IOC initially voted it off the Olympic island was that the sport's best players do not participate. Major League Baseball has refused from the start -- baseball became an official event in 1992 -- to accommodate the Games by shutting down its regular season schedule and freeing big leaguers to compete for their national teams. That resistance hurts more than just Team USA, given the All-Star talent from countries such as the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Japan. But baseball is America's "national pastime,'' and a Dream Team of U.S. talent would be fearsome (if less lopsidedly so than in softball).
As a result, the U.S. sends over a squad made up of minor leaguers and occasional college players, mostly farmhands who aren't even considered the hottest prospects in their respective systems because in addition to blocking current major leaguers from participating, MLB teams often prevent their best minor leaguers from going, too. Sending a team of 29th- and 30th-best players from the cooperating clubs didn't cause the nasty scene Monday, when the U.S. and China played beanball and should be fortunate to have avoided an international incident. But it did reinforce the image baseball has had: Class AAA talent offering up a C-list experience, with none of the cachet to which the Olympics and its viewers have grown accustomed. Presidents and prime ministers don't appoint ambassadors from their clerical staffs, and sports eager for international acceptance shouldn't do the equivalent with their national teams.
If MLB isn't willing to commit to having its stars interrupt their seasons every four years (even while the NHL is), how about turning once-every-four-years into once, period? Just once, have MLB, Team USA, the U.S. Olympic organizers, committees in other countries and the IOC reach an agreement to send the best of the best to the 2016 Games. If it's too late for London in 2012 (the IOC will re-visit baseball's and softball's status in fall 2009), then try it one time, for a few weeks, four years after that. See how it goes.
Bob DuPuy, MLB's chief operation officer, said last week that he is confident baseball will be brought back to the Olympics and has representatives on the ground in Beijing lobbying IOC members. What better way to make it happen than by pledging a commitment to include the Dream Teams of several countries, stocked with their major leaguers? And with Tokyo and Chicago among the four finalists, baseball -- and softball -- would have a chance to return in a city that is already crazy about the sport.
Look, not every sport is Olympian in nature. Football as we know it holds no more appeal around the world than cricket does over here, and neither can be found in Beijing at the moment. Golf, too, seems to do just fine without Olympic approval.
Baseball, though, is an international game trying to grow its global appeal. It would love to match the NFL in TV viewership and duplicate the NBA by seeding audiences in Europe and Asia. It admitted its interest in worldwide presence with the creation of the World Baseball Classic, MLB's attempt to stage a separate-but-equal Olympic competition that was driven, in part, by Team USA's failure to qualify for the 2004 Games in Athens.
Separate? Sure. But hardly equal. The inaugural WBC, which saw Japan beat Cuba at San Diego's Petco Park for the championship, had games that were sparsely attended. On the heels of the 2006 Winter Olympics, the event got lost on the sports calendar for many. And it had timing issues of its own: Some major league players opted out, preferring to focus on spring training with their NL and AL employers. Managers and team executives, meanwhile, bristled at the interruption of spring training and fretted that players weren't yet ready to bear down in serious competition.
There will always be plenty of reasons to keep MLB players home from the Olympics. For incentive, though, MLB need look no further than to what has been happening in the gym in Beijing the past two weeks, with international fans going ga-ga over Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Yao Ming. That popularity is a direct result of the NBA sending Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the others to Barcelona in 1992. If the explosive growth of basketball as a competitive sport doesn't grab baseball commissioner Bud Selig, the cha-chinging of NBA counterpart David Stern's cash registers four Olympics later certainly ought to.