Team USA Prepares for What Could Be Baseball’s Last Shot at Summer Olympics

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Team USA will open its part of the baseball tournament at the Tokyo Olympics this weekend with games against Israel Saturday and Korea Sunday at the Yokohama Baseball Stadium.

Host Japan, the Dominican Republic and Mexico round out the six-nation field. But the future of the sport in the Summer Games is tenuous.

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As of now, men’s baseball and women’s softball will not be part of the 2024 Games at Paris. They’ve had a 13-year absence but are represented this time because the host country is allowed to select several sports for competition, and the Japanese chose them.

That won’t happen in France, although subsequent Games at Los Angeles in 2028, and Brisbane, Australia, in 2032 are likely to have the host countries again place baseball and softball in the competition.

Major League Baseball’s refusal to send big league players to Tokyo has caused a huge problem for the International Olympic Committee, which voted to reject both sports. Baseball is back for the first time since 2008, but it has little chance of becoming a permanent Olympic sport again until MLB allows players on Major League 40-man rosters to participate.

In contrast, the NBA makes available its top players each Olympics, as the league has done again this year, even though the team that was haphazardly put together has struggled thus far, losing to France and trouncing Iran.

“It’s difficult because unlike the NBA, when baseball is in the Olympics we’re playing during the season,” New York Mets president Sandy Alderson said during an interview last year. “I actually believe there are ways that it could be accommodated. But that would take some innovation and creativity. It’s definitely possible, but that would shrink the number of days involved in the competition.

“There are ways you can do it,” he said. “Some years might be more difficult than others. Obviously, when the games are in Los Angeles and if you have a three-day tournament, you can accommodate that.”

Alderson should know. A former deputy MLB commissioner under Bud Selig, he was in charge of international baseball and the Olympic team during his MLB tenure. He put together the squad managed by the late Tommy Lasorda that won Team USA’s only baseball gold medal during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The U.S. has also won a pair of bronze medals in the five previous Summer Olympics when baseball was an official sport.

Reached in New York Wednesday, Alderson said he had nothing to add to his previous opinions.

This year, Team USA, which is a mix of unsigned former big league players and minor leaguers, will have a tough time grabbing gold against host Japan, even if it advances to the medal games.

The Japanese take Olympic baseball seriously and make two players available from each of the 12 Nippon Professional Baseball teams as their season continues.

And they’re not bench dwellers, either. For example, pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, late of the New York Yankees, has been given leave from the Tohoku Golden Eagles to pitch for the Japanese. Tanaka returned to Japan this year after the Yankees declined to re-sign him as a free agent.

Former Angels manager Mike Scioscia is leading the current U.S. squad and went through an arduous process to first qualify for the Olympics and then remake the roster for Japan. It took the U.S. three tries in Mexico, Tokyo and Florida to ultimately qualify.

Third baseman Todd Frazier, catcher Tim Federowicz, and pitchers Edwin Jackson, David Robertson and Scott Kazmir are players with recent Major League experience on the roster. The first four are unsigned free agents, while Kazmir is at Triple-A Sacramento in the San Francisco Giants system and pitched in the big leagues this season.

Frazier was released by the Pittsburgh Pirates and granted free agency on May 13. Less than a month later at Port Lucie, Fla., the veteran third baseman helped Team USA punch a ticket to Tokyo, hitting a double and homer to account for the two winning runs during a decisive victory over Venezuela in the America’s Qualifying Tournament. Jackson and Robertson also contributed, working the last three shutout innings.

Other late adds to the U.S. squad were infielders Tyler Austin, and pitchers Nick Martinez and Scott McGough, who are all playing in Japan this season.

“We had a pretty big turnover from our qualifying team as we looked for players coming out of our tournament in Florida,” Scioscia said during a media appearance Wednesday in Yokohama. “We had guys in Japan on our radar for a long time to see if they were going to be available if we moved on. They will be very, very important players as we get into this tournament. They are familiar with the Japan leagues and familiar with the ballparks, and with a lot of the players on the Japanese team.”

The Japanese have already defeated the Dominicans in pool play to open the tournament. The U.S. goes in 7-0, having won all four games in the qualifying tournament and three more exhibitions as they trained earlier this month in North Carolina.

The team has been in Japan since July 22, and to protect the players from exposure to COVID-19, team media sessions both in North Carolina and Japan were canceled.

“In the days since we’ve been here, we have put together simulated games and have done some high-speed drills to try to keep our guys as simulated as we can to game conditions,” Scioscia said.

The big question is whether this tournament is a one-off or the start of baseball’s Olympic retrenchment.

MLB seems predisposed to allowing all big leaguers to play in its own World Baseball Classic, which was postponed from 2021 to 2023 because of the coronavirus. The Olympics? Not yet.

“I spent a lot of time when I was at MLB trying to keep baseball in the Olympics, unsuccessfully,” Alderson said. “I think it’s really important to be in the Olympics. Baseball needs to grow as an international sport.

“We’ve got to stop exploiting existing markets and start creating new markets for us, and the Olympics are so important in that regard,” he said. “The World Baseball Classic is great. But it’s not a substitute for the Olympics.”