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Cuba, Japan Stand Out In Euro-Centric Athens Field
By John Manuel
Four years after Ben Sheets raised his arms in triumph following a shutout of Cuba that brought gold to the United States, the Olympic baseball landscape has changed dramatically.
The U.S. won its first gold since baseball became a medal sport in 2000 in Sydney. Team USA won’t be around to defend that title in Athens because it failed to qualify for the 2004 Games, to be held in Athens from Aug. 15-25. Bronze medalist Korea, which shut down its professional league for the Sydney games, also failed to qualify for Athens.
At least baseball is still around, though. Between tournaments, the sport almost got kicked off the Olympic program. Jacques Rogge took over as head of the International Olympic Committee and immediately sought to have baseball removed. While it survived and should be on the docket for 2008 in Beijing as well, a successful tournament in Athens is a must to regain momentum for the sport within the Olympic movement.
Yet it’s harder to have a successful tournament when two of the best teams in the world—two that care deeply about baseball—aren’t included.
“What’s needed is for IBAF (the International Baseball Federation) to have a better understanding of how it can sell international baseball, which is very unique,” said Baseball Canada national team director Greg Hamilton, whose nation will make its first trip to an Olympic diamond. “International baseball is a tremendously worthy cause. But to sell it, it would really help to have the best teams to be in the best tournaments.
“There needs to be an environment that gives the best teams a fair opportunity to earn a spot in the Olympics. Also, the notion that Europe should have equity with the Americas and Asia in terms of the number of teams it gets in the Olympics doesn’t make sense.”
Hamilton speaks from experience. Canada had the best record in the 1999 Americas qualifier, yet Team USA and Cuba won in the semifinals to earn the two Olympic berths. This time, Canada earned a bid while Team USA lost in the quarterfinals of the qualifying tournament last November in Panama, when Mexico and lefthander Rigo Beltran beat the Americans 2-1.
USA Baseball executive director Paul Seiler will be going to Athens anyway, but as the baseball competition director. He’s made site visits to the two ballparks built just for the Olympics, near the port of Piraeus. One seats about 9,000, the other 5,000.
The venues are ready, and Athens is ready for the Games, Seiler said. And he’s ready to get Team USA ready for the next Olympics.
“We had to move on in November, really; we’re past that pain,” Seiler said. “These Games are still important. We’ll be talking to the IOC about improving the tournament and ensuring we stay on the program past 2008. But having Canada and Taiwan in the Olympics just speaks to the globalization of the sport.”
Seiler’s sunny outlook also highlights the lack of balance in the tournament field, however. Cuba and Japan are prohibitive favorites to win medals, and if any other nation wins gold it would be a major upset.
Cuba won gold in 1992 and ’96, the first two times baseball was a medal sport. Japan won the first Olympic tournament, in 1984, and finished out of the medals for the first time in 2000 despite having nine members of its major leagues on the roster. This year, its roster is an all-star team from the Japan League.
Still, Cuba has won every gold medal in major international competitions since Sheets’ three-hit shutout back in September 2000. So some things really don’t change.
“We’re really tense,” outfielder Carlos Tabares told the Cuban newspaper Granma International. “We can’t fail. We have our people behind us, so the Olympic victory will be a happy event, a defeat for sadness.”