Baseball and softball were removed from the Olympics in 2005, becoming the first sports exiled from the Games since 1936—when polo lost its spot.
I doubt polo’s attempts at reinstatement were as sophisticated and organized as those of baseball and softball, which have pursued separate bids in the past and combined for a bid presented in September to the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Polo has never gotten back into the Olympics. Despite a strong combined bid, and despite the 2020 Games being awarded to baseball-mad Tokyo, baseball and softball seem destined for a similar fate. They finished second in the IOC’s vote, with wrestling being reinstated just seven months after it was removed from the Olympic slate. The bid of one stick-and-ball sport, with two disciplines—men’s baseball, women’s softball—came in second. (In your face, squash!)
This vote feels final. The architects of the combined World Baseball and Softball Confederation bid, softball leader Don Porter and Riccardo Fraccari, the president of the International Baseball Federation, said all the right things about making a go of it again for 2024 and future Olympiads.
“The WBSC will continue working hard and will continue listening and learning from the IOC, so that baseball and softball can come under the Olympic umbrella to serve and strengthen the Olympic Movement, as our sport expands and globalizes further,” Fraccari said in a statement after the vote.
But as The Smiths sang, I Know It’s Over. And in some ways, it never really began.
Softball needs the Olympics as a top-level event. Baseball, which is the more popular sport internationally, does not, and that seems to be its undoing as an Olympic sport.
Minor Leaguers Not Enough
Other sports that don’t need the Olympics are still in the Games, of course. Basketball famously has provided its top players since the Dream Team in 1992, both within the National Basketball Association and in Europe’s professional leagues. The National Hockey League and other Euro pro leagues also provide their top-level players to the Olympics, with the NHL even interrupting its regular season during Olympic years.
That’s never going to happen with Major League Baseball. The joint Olympic bid plan was to play the baseball tournament in one week of the Olympics, followed by a one-week softball event. The logistics of a one-week event would have made it more likely that major league players could have participated, as compared to two weeks of pool play and a medal round.
But even for its own World Baseball Classic, MLB doesn’t interrupt its season, and it wasn’t going to do it for the Olympics, either. Heck, fans and media make a stink about the integrity of spring-training exhibition games that have rosters altered by WBC play.
Since the 2005 IOC vote, the international baseball landscape has changed markedly, and the Classic, which debuted in 2006, is the biggest example. Instead of featuring amateurs (the ’92 and ’96 Games) or minor leaguers and future big leaguers (2000, ’04 and ’08), the WBC pits major leaguers and the top professionals from around the world.
From MLB’s standpoint, the best thing about the WBC is that it controls the money, working with partners such as the MLB Players Association, Japan’s player’s union and Nippon Professional Baseball. The Classic demonstrates how much more international the sport has become, with traditional Olympic powers the U.S. and Cuba making just two combined trips to the event’s semifinals. Meanwhile non-traditional powers from the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic (which had no Olympic track record despite its baseball history) to Brazil and Italy have had their moments.
The Classic, with major leaguers and future big leaguers from Japan, Korea, Cuba and the rest of the world, is a more accessible event than the Olympics. U.S. fans never seemed invested in international play with minor leaguers, no matter how interesting those minor leaguers were.
And the era of minor leaguers in top-level international play was a fascinating one. USA Baseball won one Olympic gold in 2000, led by the likes of Ben Sheets and Doug Mientkiewicz, and won World Cups in 2007 and 2009 with teams led by Evan Longoria (’07), and Pedro Alvarez (’09). The Netherlands won a World Cup in 2011, setting the stage for their WBC success this spring, and Canada rode Andrew Albers to its first international championship, the 2011 Pan American Games.
Minor leaguers showed the way to how compelling and competitive international baseball could be. IBAF now has shifted the World Cup name to the 18U championship, which the United States won against Japan in a tournament played in Taiwan. In the spring, the Dominican won its first WBC title in San Francisco, beating tournament Cinderella Puerto Rico.
International baseball is alive and well. It has gotten used to going it alone, without the Olympics. And that is not going to change.