Games worth playing: Are MLB stars willing to go to Olympics?
MINNEAPOLIS -- If the quality of play in Olympic baseball competition was consistently more suited to a beer league than to Beijing, if the value of an entire sport depended solely on the names in that day's lineup, if someone was trying to pass off the worst-of-the-worst as the best-of-the-best, then dropping baseball beginning with the 2012 London Games might make some sense.
But Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire doesn't buy that as a reason the International Olympic Committee might have for eliminating his favorite sport.
"Why is that their concern? What does that have to do with it?'' Gardenhire asked before his team's game against the Oakland Athletics at the Metrodome. "Olympics are about competing against each other and the joy of sports. It's about countries getting away from everything else. Why does it have to be `the best?' I liked it when it was all college kids. I liked all sports when they were college kids. The best moment we've had, with our hockey team: College kids. They beat the Russians [at Lake Placid in 1980]. To me, to say that, that's a weak excuse.''
A Miracle On Ice trumps a Dream Team, as far as Gardenhire is concerned. He admits, however, that he is biased toward baseball as an international sport. He manages a team with five players on the active roster who have participated on national teams. The Twins organization sent 15 players to the World Baseball Classic in 2006, and Gardenhire, who has a German birth certificate, occasionally jokes about coaching Deutscheland in international competition.
"What's sad is, as it's gaining as a world game, we're taking baseball out,'' Gardenhire said. "A lot of countries are picking baseball up and playing. We've got our people going around the world and teaching and helping them start programs. So now when it's finally growing and being accepted by other countries, it's being shut down.''
The IOC, in voting in 2005 to drop baseball and softball after the Beijing Games, also cited the costs of constructing ballparks at Olympic sites and the limited interest in the sports in Europe, Africa and other nations. The topic is scheduled to be revisited in fall 2009, with an eye on the 2016 Games.
"I really find it hard to believe that we can't have baseball but we can have BMX bicycle riding,'' said Twins shortstop Adam Everett, a member of the U.S. squad that took gold at the 2000 Games in Sydney. "Especially going to the Olympics, winning a gold medal and seeing that the stadium was full, I mean, in Australia. That was every game we played, and they're not known that well for baseball.
"It's disappointing. It's America's pastime, but you look and it's becoming global, with Japan and China. The Latin countries, that's their main sport. We've got the World Baseball Classic and that's similar to the Olympics -- but it's not the Olympics. You're talking about representing your country with all the other athletes, and wearing red, white and blue, and maybe getting a chance to win a medal? That's cool, and for people to not have that opportunity, that kind of stinks.''
Everett and his teammates captured gold thanks to Milwaukee pitcher Ben Sheets' three-hit shutout of Cuba. Three years later, current Twins Joe Mauer, Jesse Crain and Mike Lamb were among the U.S. group that failed to qualify in Panama for the 2004 Athens Games. Justin Morneau, the 2006 American League MVP, played for Canada's national teams in 2001 qualifying and in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Now, they all click on the Beijing blog of Twins farmhand Brian Duensing, on loan to Team USA from Rochester (AAA).
"Baseball is one of the most popular sports in the world -- on our side of the ocean, at least,'' said Crain, who pitched for Morneau's Canadian team in '06 (he was born in Toronto in 1981 while his American parents were there for business). "From what it sounds like, it just doesn't seem like it's that popular in London and London is where the next Olympics is, right? Any time you play a sport, you wish it was recognized at the Olympics. But there's not much we can do about it, other than promote it and try to get it back in there for 2016.''
Sending major league players, somehow, some way, would give the IOC the glamour and gate attractions it might crave to reinstate baseball as an official event. Getting MLB to accommodate that would be an equal or greater challenge.
"It's almost like a Catch-22,'' third baseman Lamb said. "You've got the patriotism of the Americans, wanting the best players to play. Then you run into what we're talking about with injuries and having responsibilities to a billion-dollar industry. That tugs at you the other way. So it's a precarious position to be in.
"Our season is so long, 162 games, and I think Morneau is going to play in every one. Now you're adding three more weeks to the schedule, and if Morneau plays for Canada, that's 10 more games and however much more travel. . . . People like [Hank] Steinbrenner hate [interleague play] because pitchers have to run the bases and can get hurt. Now we're supposed to find out how he feels about the Olympics? That's tough.''
Baltimore Orioles president Andy MacPhail pointed out that wear and tear on participating major leaguers would only be part of the problem with a summertime Dream Team approach. "When a pitcher doesn't throw for a couple of weeks now, we lose a couple more weeks building his arm back up again,'' MacPhail said. "This isn't a sport where you can build up to play, then take a lot of time off, then jump back in and play at a high level. The largest percentage of players [disadvantaged] would be the ones not in the Olympics.''
For the U.S., showcasing baseball at the Olympics is a chance to grow the game internationally. For other countries, it's a way to measure themselves against the best (or near-best). For Cuba, though, it is its World Series. Unlike places such as Venezuela or the Dominican Republic, the elite players in Cuba mostly have stayed put in Cuba.
"Oh yes, it's a big achievement for a player to be able to represent his home team,'' said former Twins outfielder and Cuban native Tony Oliva, still a special assistant with the team. "I never had the opportunity. But my brother played on the Cuban national team for 12 years.''
Juan Carlos Oliva never played in an Olympics but represented Cuba in tournaments in Japan, Korea, Canada and elsewhere until 1981, the Twins legend said. "The Cuban team in the '70s, I don't think there were too many teams that would be able to beat it. That Cuban team had so many great, pure baseball players. The old scouts, they know what I am talking about. Because any place they went -- to Venezuela, to Mexico, those tournaments -- there were scouts there and they saw.''
A gold medal has a powerful allure, even for big leaguers. Everett already has his, safe at home in a lockbox, but Twins who played on that 2003 national team still think about the one that got away. Lamb, for instance, said he would rather win one than earn a World Series ring -- and he got to the Series in 2005 with Houston.
"They're both goals and dreams. That's a hard one,'' Crain said. ``Guess I'd have to go by what's available. Right now, the World Series is [the only one] available.''
Unfortunately for Lamb and those who feel as he does, that may never change.