Baseball At The Olympics: Who Really Cares?

Can baseball find its place at the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics?東京オリンピック・パラリンピック競技大会組織委員会

By AJ Mithen

Baseball has had a reasonably chequered Olympic career.

It finally graduated to ‘full’ Olympic sport status in Barcelona in 1992, after seven times at the games as a ‘demonstration’ sport. Being on the fully-fledged Olympic roster hasn’t guaranteed baseball a spot on the schedule, though. Baseball has been in and out of games as host cities choose sports they feel their local athletes have a chance to do well in and most times, that isn’t baseball.

Like Olympic basketball before 1992, baseball was an amateur-only tournament in 1992 and in Atlanta in 1996, but professional players have been permitted since Sydney in 2000. The only problem with that is, the majority of the world’s best professional baseball players are currently tied up in the major and minor leagues across the United States.

The scheduling of the Olympics - intended to cater to the northern hemisphere summer - means MLB or MiLB talent is absolutely not going to attend. MLB free agents Todd Frazier, David Robertson, and Edwin Jackson played in the USA’s qualifying series, and you’d expect they’ll be on the paper when Team USA Manager Mike Scioscia will announce his roster for the Tokyo Olympic Games on or after July 1, 2021. You can use the term ‘free agents’ loosely there because none of those three are likely to have a big-league club looking at them. They’ve played out distinguished careers in the bigs and are now looking for a cherry on top.

So if the best players from the Majors aren’t going to be in Japan, what value do you place on a medal at the games? Would a medal have a higher feeling than say, winning the WBSC World Baseball Classic, where all nations are represented rather than just the limited field of an Olympics?

The Tokyo Olympics will have just a six-team tournament, with the first-ranked Japanese hosts going against the recently qualified world number two USA, Israel, Mexico, reigning gold medalists Korea and a final qualifier from a play-in tournament starting this week and featuring the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands, and Venezuela. Japan has named a squad stacked with local talent from the Nippon Baseball League, which has gone into recess for three weeks to give the host nation the best chance to win gold.

The play-in tournament has had its troubles. Initially to be held in Taiwan, it was moved to Puebla, Mexico, which saw the world's fourth-ranked team, Chinese Taipei, and sixth-ranked Australia withdraw, citing issues with COVID-19 restrictions at home and in Japan.

Does having six nations competing really expose new people to the great game? Is a six-nation tournament really worth having at the Olympics in the first place? I’ll say yes because I see firsthand what it means here in Australia. With limited chances to play as a national team, Australia takes its chances to play Olympic baseball seriously, because it works as a showcase for the game back home.

It was incredibly disappointing for fans of the game in Australia, and there are plenty, when the national team had to withdraw from this week’s play-in tournament. Under the guidance of former MLB all-star catcher David Nilsson, hopes were high for a strong showing. In Australia’s case, Olympic qualification means more funding through the door, and a level of exposure to potential sponsors, supporters, and players that the local league can only dream of.

Ultimately though, it’s the level of talent on show that will pique the interest and get people watching. If the Olympics aren’t the pinnacle of the game, why would the casual Olympics watcher take notice? There are dozens of other sports there filled with the world’s elite performers that you can watch instead.

For most, an Olympic medal would be outranked by winning the WBSC World Baseball Classic, an MLB World Series ring, or a player’s local comp like the Korean, Chinese or Japanese leagues. When the tournament wraps in Tokyo that’s it for Olympic baseball for the foreseeable future. France has already ruled the sport out for 2024, Los Angeles hasn’t put out a schedule for 2028 and there’s no hint of baseball on anything to do with a rundown for Brisbane’s 2032 rundown.

From a series of demonstrations, to an amateur game, to a professional game, none of the best players seem interested in it, and can’t get released for it either. It looks like baseball may be running its last race at the Olympic level for now. And that’s a shame for those of us who love the sport.

AJ Mithen is an Australian sportswriter, co-host of the podcast ‘A Sporting Discussion’ and regular guest on radio ABC Central Victoria and RRR FM. He loves to give space to the sporting stories the mainstream forgets - and he’ll never rest until Australian baseball gets the coverage it deserves. He’s always up for a chat on Twitter @AJMithen and @ASD_Radio.

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