Do you believe in nightmares? Yes! At the Olympic baseball qualifying tournament in Panama City, Team USA, a collection of minor league players coached by Expos manager Frank Robinson, outscored three preliminary-round opponents 20-0: business as usual for the defending gold medal champs. Then, last Friday the Americans were upset 2-1 by lightly regarded Mexico—and just like that, under the one-loss-and-you're-out rule governing baseball, basketball, hockey and other sports, the U.S. was eliminated from next summer's Olympics. So much for Roger Clemens's talk of taking the mound in Athens.
The loss was more than just a blow to American fans; it could help usher baseball out of the Olympics. Because the sport has never had strong international appeal, the IOC considers it dispensable, a notch below beach volleyball and synchronized swimming. And that was before the glamour team got bounced from the tournament, leaving the untantalizing prospect of, say, the Netherlands and Italy playing America's pastime in Greece.
The IOC has already discussed dropping baseball, an Olympic sport since 1984, but the proposal was tabled until 2005, largely in the hope that Major League Baseball would agree to send players to the Olympics, as the NHL and NBA do. But MLB, in concert with its players' union, prohibited players who were on active rosters after Aug. 31 from competing in pre-Olympic events, citing a conflict with the season. MLB also said it would not interrupt next season to let players go to Greece. (Privately Olympic officials also hint that MLB and the union did not want players subjected to the Games' strict drug tests.)
Meanwhile MLB and the players' association are trying to put together a baseball World Cup that would take place before the 2005 season and feature Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa (playing for the Dominican Republic) and Ichiro Suzuki (playing for Japan). A successful World Cup might persuade MLB to extend its All-Star break so players could join the Olympics for the medal-round games in 2008. Without the big leaguers Olympic baseball is probably facing its last at bat.