A proposal to fix Olympic baseball: make it a home run derby

·5 min read

YOKOHAMA, Japan – The 60-game season Major League Baseball played in 2020 only barely felt like a worthwhile test for the top baseball talents on Earth. So a tournament that goes a maximum of six and looks like an old timer’s day crossed with the futures game, plus the best beer league players you’ve seen and some guys you didn’t realize were still playing overseas hardly feels like the pinnacle of sport.

That’s an inherent issue with Olympic baseball, which is back in the Summer Games along with softball this year after 13 years gone (but maybe not missed). After two Olympics as “demonstration” sports and five in which Team USA didn’t even always qualify, the IOC voted baseball and softball out of the Rings for being both too American — the softball squad had outscored their opponents 51-1 in the 2004 Games — and for not featuring any of the best America-based athletes.

“Baseball will go on just fine. It’s never depended in any way, shape or form even slightly on the Olympics,” Donald Fehr, then the MLBPA executive director, said of the decision.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for softball — which needs either the Olympics or for someone back in the states to make a serious commitment to financially investing in the growth of the game. (Which, for the record, they absolutely should.)

But that sentiment persists in baseball. Players on the 40-man rosters for MLB teams are not allowed to participate, and often GMs will block even their non-40-man prospects from leaving the system mid-season.

In other words, it’s a good thing Todd Frazier is here or else the collective MLB WAR of Team USA would be -1.

In other other words, USA’s first Olympic game in over a decade on Friday night in Tokyo, when they blew out Team Israel 8-1, was certainly not bigger news back home than the Rays trading Diego Castillo to the Mariners. The country that cares the most about baseball doesn’t really care about Olympic baseball, and I don’t think you can blame that all on the time difference.

The baseball so far in Fukushima and Yokohama has been, in a word: mediocre. Sloppy, simple — quick! Can we keep the rule about staying in the batter's box? — and, despite some close scores, not especially well-balanced.

Maybe the owners and players could negotiate a break in the schedule big enough to allow baseball’s best to play in the Olympics. And maybe the players would even want to go if they could. The 2028 Los Angeles games are the best shot for something like that to happen if baseball/softball can get added back to the Summer slate.

But maybe the better bet if baseball wants to showcase some of what makes the game so much fun on an Olympic level is to just export its most accessible, high-octane event.

Forget Olympic Baseball. What about: Olympic Home Run Derby?

USA's Eric Filia (R) slides safely to steal the second base as Israel's second baseman Ian Kinsler (L) looks on during the eighth inning of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games baseball opening round group B game between USA and Israel at Yokohama Baseball Stadium in Yokohama, Japan, on July 30, 2021. (Photo by KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA / AFP) (Photo by KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA/AFP via Getty Images)
USA's Eric Filia slides safely to steal the second base as Israel's second baseman Ian Kinsler looks on. (Photo by KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA / AFP) (Photo by KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA/AFP via Getty Images)

The biggest advantage: Every year we host a single-day Home Run Derby and crown a legitimate champion. Even if an Olympic-worthy field was spread over two or three days, it could fit inside the existing All-Star break or a more acceptable absence from the season. Some stars might not show, just as is the case with the current derby, but it’s already proven to be a worthwhile endeavor for some players who want the kind of good-for-the-game glory that comes from doing big dingers on an even bigger stage.

It would look, well, a lot like the existing Home Run Derby, considering there are plenty of international sluggers among MLB’s home run leaders. Think: Shohei Ohtani with the same Derby fanfare we saw earlier this month, only with a once-every-four-years opportunity to play for the home country that adores him. And that incredible first round against Juan Soto — only that becomes Japan vs. the Dominican Republic. At the same time, it would be a great way to get introduced to stars of other leagues on an individual basis in a straightforward, meaningful context.

All that and the chance for Pete Alonso to become a national hero in what is sure to be a slick pair of custom cleats that he secured for the whole U.S. contingent.

Qualifying Derbies could be held in the offseason and qualified countries could send up to three people to Olympics themselves. Or, I don’t know, maybe just make it that the top 10 percent of home run hitters in certain leagues automatically qualify. We can work out the details later.

Plenty of existing Olympic disciplines are short bursts of activity that depend on single athletic skill. In the context of shot put and weightlifting, repeatedly swinging for the fences feels right at home.

I say all this as someone who is not even a huge homer fan (I prefer Herodotus) in my daily baseball diet. But moonshots are visceral and home run derbies are inherently action-packed. The Olympics — for all the flaws — create instant narratives that captivate new audiences around the world. Baseball could use that, and it deserves better than the largely forgettable tournament being played right now in Japan.

Does this idea exclude pitchers, whose power and precision is a big part of what actual baseball fans tune in to see? Sure. But that’s a harder sell to an unfamiliar audience and besides, if they start to get jealous about the medals hanging in their teammates’ lockers as Olympic Home Run Derby becomes a premier event at the Summer Games, then we can reevaluate whether actual baseball needs to be in the Olympics.

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 9 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 9 slideshow embed

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