Over & Out?

For some American baseball fans, Ben Sheets remains the face of baseball in the Olympics.

It was Sheets who stymied Cuba in the gold-medal game in 2000, shutting out the two-time defending Olympic champions. His victory propelled the United States to its first Olympic baseball gold since it became a medal sport back in 1992, and soon thereafter, Sheets was starring in the major leagues for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Sheets was an example of Olympic baseball at its best. He was a professional athlete, which the Olympics want now, and a major league talent for sure. In his first Olympic game, Sheets squared off against another top pro, Japanese big leaguer Daisuke Matsuzaka, and he wound up helping win an Olympic gold medal, using that international experience as a part of his player development. The same could be said for 2000 Olympians such as Roy Oswalt, the No. 2 starter behind Sheets that September, outfielder Brad Wilkerson and shortstop Adam Everett, among others.

That’s how baseball and the Olympics were supposed to work once professionals were approved for international baseball play in 1996. In USA Baseball’s athlete development program, players could don the USA uniform as high school players, either for the 14-and-under, Youth (16-and-under) or Junior (18-and-under) teams, then play for USA Baseball again on the college national team and play in the Olympics or other events as professionals to finish the chain. Twins catcher Joe Mauer, Rockies outfielder Matt Holliday and Athletics reliever Huston Street are some of the more prominent players who have played for USA Baseball as both amateurs and as professionals.

It’s not exactly the Dream Team of NBA fame, though, because Mauer, Street and Holliday didn’t play for Team USA in the Olympics. Major leaguers and the Olympics still have yet to mix, and for the 2008 Games in Beijing, Team USA once again will sport a roster of minor leaguers.

In the end, that’s why this is the last Olympiad with baseball scheduled to be part of the proceedings. The International Olympic Committee voted in July 2005 to remove baseball from the Games, citing factors from anti-doping concerns to facilities costs. But the biggest issue was the lack of major league players—the Olympics want the best athletes, both from a prestige standpoint and of course an economic one.

So baseball goes bye-bye after Beijing, and while Major League Baseball, the MLB Players Association, the International Olympic Committee and all their official sponsors would love to see big leaguers in the Olympics, much has to happen for that to become a reality.

And the reality may be that no matter how big the Olympics are, for many players, they will never be the pinnacle for baseball. That’s even true for someone like Ben Sheets.

“There isn’t any player growing up thinking they want to play in the Olympics,” Sheets said back in 2005 when he heard about the IOC vote that removed baseball from the Olympic program.

“That was one of my greatest moments, but it has nothing to do with the big leagues.”

One day, the Olympics could have something to do with the big leagues. USA Baseball general manager Bob Watson said as much during the conference call announcing the 2008 U.S. Olympic roster, laying out a timetable for the October 2009 vote when the IOC picks a host city for the 2016 Games and sets the program for them.

“MLB and IBAF (the International Baseball Federation) and the IOC are working diligently to have a system where our big leaguers are playing,” Watson said. “I think if Chicago or Tokyo would win the Olympics for 2016, I think those countries are baseball countries, they have venues.

“There are lot of moving parts in this, but don’t rule it out. Instead of a three-day break for the All-Star Game, you might end up having a four- or five-day break, and get all the games in, some kind of way, and using major leaguers. I think some of the obstacles, (such as) drug testing, we definitely have met a lot of those requirements.

“We have the World Baseball Classic now, and that popularity is only going to grow. We feel baseball is going to get back into the Olympics.”

Watson’s proposal is one that IBAF has talked about, and the group’s president, Harvey Schiller, is uniquely qualified to pursue it. After all, Schiller’s career has put him in situations that should prepare him for dealing with a group as large, diverse and powerful as the IOC. He’s worked as president of TBS Sports  and CEO of YankeeNets, which owns the New York Yankees’ YES network, as well as stints as the Southeastern Conference commissioner, U.S. Olympic Committee executive director and as a U.S. Air Force pilot. The “Message From the President’ on the IBAF website states bluntly, ” . . . My main objective is to get baseball back in the official Olympic program.”

He elaborated in an interview noting, “It took more than 60 years for hockey to start using NHL players in the Olympics, and about that for NBA players. Baseball has only been in the Olympics since 1992. So basically in 16 years, we’ve gone from amateurs to players just off 25-man rosters. I think that’s real progress.”

IBAF’s job is to convince the IOC that baseball has answered the concerns that prompted baseball’s removal from the Games, and IBAF has made progress on issues such as drug testing and venue costs.

“Before the fact, neither of those issues was really mentioned,” Schiller said. “But the reality is, those are issues we have to address. And the key there is, Major League Baseball and the Players Association have been completely cooperative when it comes to becoming fully WADA (World Anti-Doping Association) compliant.”

The big issue left remains the involvement of major leaguers. The logistics of being an Olympian might make Watson’s one-week plan difficult—baseball players likely would miss out on being processed with other Olympic athletes or on the Opening Ceremonies, for example. But then getting big leaguers in the Olympics likely is going to require compromises on all sides, not just from MLB.

By the time the 2016 Games roll around in Chicago, or Tokyo, or other finalists Madrid or Rio de Janeiro, MLB will have had two more World Baseball Classics. The event’s inaugural run in 2006 was a smash success, drawing more than 700,000 fans even with the U.S. falling short of the semifinal round, and MLB controls the revenue from the WBC.

“I still see them as complimentary,” said Greg Hamilton, national teams director for Baseball Canada. “Major League Baseball doesn’t need the Olympics per se; it stands on its own certainly. But baseball as a sport needs the Olympics. It’s the largest sporting event in the world, and there’s a significant benefit the Olympics can provide to growing the sport internationally. The Classic was a great event but it’s not the Olympics.”

Even if major leaguers become involved in the Olympics for 2016 or future Games, MLB would have take a back seat to the IOC on the revenue side, from licensing to television rights to tickets. That, to use Watson’s term, is a major obstacle.

USA Baseball executive director/CEO Paul Seiler admits the financial arguments against MLB and the Olympics coming together are “valid on some level.” But he insists that any honest appraisal of the situation would reveal that the benefits outweigh the difficulties of arriving at the ideal situation of major league players suiting up in Olympic games.

“The Olympics really grow sports on a level that pro leagues can’t do because of the huge benefit of Olympic funding to international federations,” said Seiler, whose USA Baseball first lost a quarter of its operating budget when it failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics and then was pushed out of the U.S. Olympic Committee altogether soon thereafter. Major League Baseball now provides the bulk of USA Baseball’s budget.

“This is a matter of timing as much as anything. This is not basketball, a winter sport that’s played in the Summer Olympics. If you took a 10-day break in the major league season, that’s 15 games a day, 150 games you’re out. I don’t think you need to have the precise numbers to realize you’re talking about millions and millions of dollars lost, so I think people need to realize that this is not easy.”

Just getting to this point, to this Olympic field with this talent level, wasn’t easy.

As recently as 1996, the Olympic baseball tournament was an all-amateur event. That fall, pros were approved for play in international baseball, and the U.S. and Canada fielded their first professional rosters for the 1999 Pan American Games, an Olympic qualifying tournament. That year, MLB allowed international federations to use players who were not on 40-man rosters. One year later, for the Sydney Games, players not on 25-man big league rosters were eligible, so the jump in talent from 1996 to 2000 was from amateurs to all but the top 750 major league players.

“I think that’s something that baseball hasn’t gotten enough credit for,” Seiler says. “The talent level at the Olympics has been pretty strong. In soccer, you’re talking about a sport that has a 23-and-under Olympic tournament, to name just one. Every sport doesn’t have its top-level players in the Olympics.”

If this is the last Olympics with baseball on the schedule, it should be an interesting tournament. Two opposing forces are at work. On the positive side, the eight-team field looks strong, with host China the only nation without significant baseball history.

“In 2004, with the U.S. out, we really felt that was a major medal contender who was not there,” Hamilton said. “The U.S. is back now, and that’s great for the sport, and it makes the tournament a better tournament, plain and simple. If the U.S. isn’t the best baseball nation in the world, it’s certainly one of them.”

However, the eight preliminary rosters include a startling number of amateurs, including a pair of high school players on the rosters of Canada (Brett Lawrie) and the Netherlands (Juan Carlos Sulbero). In general, the six nations other than China and Cuba seem to have good rosters, but not as strong as they could be.

That’s certainly the case with Team USA, which didn’t get cooperation from all 30 clubs. The Rays, for example, didn’t provide several players who make perfect sense for the U.S. roster, such as lefthander David Price (a Team USA veteran from his college career) and shortstop Reid Brignac. Team Canada also didn’t get all the players it hoped for, with an elbow injury sidelining its top pitching prospect, Mariners righthander Phillippe Aumont.

“We fully support the Mariners in that decision,” Hamilton said. “The access to players isn’t really a problem; it’s just reality. You’re dealing with challenges of prospects and what the major league club wants and needs, and it will always be that way. I think we all understand it and try to deal with it as best we can.”

U.S. manager Davey Johnson, who has managed American national teams since 2005, sounded satisfied with the roster.

“Being a manager in the big league level, I understand the importance of having insurance for injury,” said Johnson, who managed the 1986 Mets to a World Series championship and later managed the Orioles and Dodgers. “We are lucky to get who we have because of the pennant races and getting guys major league experience. I think (MLB) has been very cooperative, some clubs more than others, but we have a great club.”

Johnson has learned well on the job. His first team, in the 2005 World Cup in the Netherlands, was shackled by a mediocre roster and failed to reach the medal round, finishing ninth. Since then, he’s gotten Team USA on a roll, with pro players winning the 2006 Olympic qualifier and 2007 World Cup. He and Watson followed a similar formula for the ’08 U.S. roster, with younger players up the middle and veterans at the corner spots, hoping for offensive power production.

“Who do you want a ball hit to in the ninth inning with the tying runner on third and two outs?” Johnson said. “A lot of veteran players have been through the wars, and you know a guy like John Gall is a professional hitter. He will be a stabilizing guy in the outfield. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and he hits the cutoff guy.

“Terry Tiffee is hitting like .393 in Triple-A; he gives you flexibility at third base and in the outfield. He makes a lot of contact, he drives the ball. It is difficult to find that type of player in 21, 22 year olds. That is the reason these (veteran) guys make the ballclub.”

Japan once again is sending a team of its top players, with 24 players from the Central and Pacific Leagues headed to Beijing, while Korea and Taiwan are sending teams of professionals. Cuba is sending its usual strong international club, and observers seem to agree that Cuba, Japan and the U.S. are once again the medal favorites.

“The beauty of it is, it’s still 60 feet, six inches, and anything can happen,” Hamilton said. “I think if you’re honest, you see Japan, Cuba and the U.S. in the same event and you know the history, they come in on paper as the teams that set the standard that you have to compete with.

“But in 2004 you saw Chris Oxspring and Jeff Williams for Australia shut out Japan in the semifinal, and Australia came close to winning the whole thing. So certainly everyone has to go in thinking they can win a medal.”

While it’s better for baseball that the U.S. is in the field, the case can be made that another run like the one Sheets led in 2000 to an American gold medal isn’t necessarily what’s best for the sport. A tournament with compelling action certainly will help, like the one in 2000. At the All-Star Game, Sheets seemed to have more sanguine thoughts of the Olympics and his part in the Games’ history, and optimism for the sport’s future.

“That one was so cool because we got to enjoy it with a big group of guys,” he said. “The further I get from it, I realize that might be as cool as it gets. I know a World Series could match it . . . but it was pretty incredible and we’re going to have another group this year that’s going to have the opportunity to hopefully feel that.”

“When you’re in the minors, it’s so for yourself. I felt like everybody wanted to get their own. When they get named to the Olympic team, it’s gonna all be for one. It doesn’t matter who does what. It’s all for one common goal—which it always should be, but it really is when it means something.”

Now the baseball industry just hopes this isn’t the last Olympics where baseball has some meaning.