The only reason for baseball to be in the Olympics

Jeff PassanMLB columnist

RIO DE JANEIRO – Baseball, in the most half-cocked fashion possible, is returning to the Olympics in 2020. Instead of representing the world, only six nations will be invited. Rather than featuring the game’s best players, its rosters are likely to include American minor leaguers and nobody from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. A multi-Games commitment would’ve given baseball some comfort, but the International Olympic Committee only guaranteed it on the program for Tokyo. This wasn’t so much a glorious return after a dozen years missing as it was a marriage proposal made with a Ring Pop.

The second-class treatment isn’t all that surprising. Baseball has felt the Olympic sneer for decades. It joined as a medal sport in 1992, amid questions about its international appeal, and was summarily dismissed after just five Games – the first sport in 72 years to get the boot from the program. Baseball kept pushing, though, asking for reconsideration, and Wednesday the IOC granted it officially.

Baseball could just as soon tell the Olympic movement to kick rocks, and it would be more than justified in doing so, but its international body is playing kind right now in hopes of currying favor for the real mother lode, the one thing that can make Olympic baseball relevant: the inclusion of major league players. And the perfect – and, really, only – time that could happen is if the 2024 Games are held in Los Angeles.

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While baseball officials have yet to discuss the possibility of changing their schedule eight years down the road for an Olympics that has yet to be awarded, they acknowledge the scenario is indeed alluring. Los Angeles is considered a front-runner, with Rome, Paris and Budapest the other options, and with the choice coming in September 2017, it would give Major League Baseball nearly seven years to plan the logistics.

Baseball considers doing so before the 2020 Games too much of a burden, even if Japan and Korea are suspending their leagues midsummer. Local-TV broadcast providers, some paying hundreds of millions of dollars annually for a team’s rights, would want money back for lost games. The Olympics fall in the middle of baseball’s golden drawing time. Players in the past have complained about coming back in the playoffs after a long layoff. These are not insurmountable issues. The benefit simply doesn’t outweigh the detriment.

Because as much as baseball aspires to be an international sport, influential figures are not certain the Olympics are the proper avenue to that. For all the TV money that comes from the United States, the Olympics are a positively Eurocentric organization, with nine of the 10 IOC presidents hailing from the continent. Baseball ranks somewhere between modern pentathlon and dressage in the mind of the IOC.

Already baseball has an event that far exceeds the Olympics in terms of quality, if not viewership: the World Baseball Classic. It has flaws, plenty of them, namely that a number of major league teams simply don’t want their players participating in high-intensity games during spring training, but at least the WBC endeavors to highlight baseball instead of placating it with a mediocre excuse for a tournament.

And that’s what the 2020 Games are. Japanese fans will go wild for it anyway, because Japan is the country that fills a 50,000-seat stadium every day for two weeks to watch high school baseball. Baseball now must offer a product to match the enthusiasm, and short of major leaguers, the best option is the next-best thing: soon-to-be major leaguers.

Some Americans want baseball to return to the Olympics. (Yahoo Sports infographic)
Some Americans want baseball to return to the Olympics. (Yahoo Sports infographic)

Imagine a six-team tournament in which the six teams are filled with the next generation of baseball stars. Players younger than 23 comprise most of the Olympic soccer teams. If baseball won’t send major leaguers, it should stock its team with the best prospects and try to replicate the Futures Game, which has turned into an enjoyable staple of All-Star weekend.

A team from the United States, another from the Dominican Republic, another from Venezuela – the three hotbeds of major league talent – along with Japan, Cuba and a European qualifier? Aside from the fact that it shows the folly of a six-team tournament – Korea and Canada and Taiwan and Mexico and Puerto Rico deserve the consideration the WBC gives them – the idea of prospect-vs.-prospect at-bats tantalizes. Better yet, if MLB deigns to allow major leaguers into the Olympics come 2024, plenty of them will be in the big leagues and ready for a return engagement.

The timing could work out perfectly. If MLB pushed back its All-Star break to coincide with the beginning of the Olympics – certainly a possibility, officials acknowledged – the two-week break for a tournament could be mitigated by other changes in the schedule. Maybe baseball uses the Olympics to test the possibility of a 154-game schedule. Or perhaps it shortens spring training for a season, as it would were games not so lucrative, and uses that extra time to cram in the games.

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Whatever the case, it’s possible. The NHL has shut down its season for the Olympics. The tug, always, is whether the benefits outweigh the detriments, and the NHL’s struggle with that question has left its participation in the 2018 Games in limbo. The NHL understands something fundamental about the Olympic movement: Every sport is just a means for the IOC to fatten its pockets and coffers.

To get into business again with that, as baseball is doing, comes with risk. There’s the embarrassment of getting dumped again. The understanding that the climb to Olympic relevancy will take decades and remains a long shot even then. The fact that for all the millions of dollars the Olympic movement will provide to baseball’s national governing bodies worldwide, MLB just as soon could fund those programs and not feel like it owes the Olympics anything.

Here baseball is, though, in the Olympics again, ready to eat its bowl of gruel in hopes it’s deemed worthy of another. If the goal is to work in major leaguers in 2024 – and that’s contingent on Los Angeles winning, because baseball would flop in any of the other European options – perhaps it’s worth the time. Otherwise, it’s the same story as always: the Olympics treating baseball as the third-class citizen it isn’t and baseball happy as ever to slide that Ring Pop right on its finger.

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