Baseball, Softball Back In Olympics

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Sheets Pitches U.S. To Olympic Gold

Baseball, last played in the Olympics in the 2008 Games in Beijing, was reinstated Wednesday for the 2020 Games in Japan, where the sport is wildly popular.

Softball—part of a joint bid with baseball—along with surfing, karate, skateboarding and sport climbing, were also unanimously approved, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said.

USA Baseball CEO Paul Seiler, who has led the governing body through the 2000 gold medal win in Sydney through the 2005 vote that ousted baseball from the Olympics, was happy to see the sport back in the Games.

“In 2005, we didn’t see it coming,” he said. “I got a very thoughtful call . . . giving me a heads up, but I’ll never forget getting that phone call from the 719 area code, which is Colorado Springs (home of the U.S. Olympic Committee). It took us by surprise.

“This time, we’ve been working hard for this moment and we should take a moment to enjoy it. To come full circle where we’re back, it’s a huge deal for us.”

Seiler praised World Baseball Softball Confederation president Riccardo Fraccari for his leadership and hard work in lobbying IOC member nations and delegates to get back into the Games. “His leadership and his role in this cannot be underestimated,” Seiler said.

Baseball, because of its popularity in Japan, had long been considered a very strong competitor to be re-added to the Olympiad. The game was banished from the Olympics in a 2005 IOC vote, and the ’08 Games were the last with baseball; the United States won a bronze medal as South Korea won gold, beating Cuba. Its re-entry into the Games gained steam in December 2014 when the IOC agreed to abolish the cap of 28 sports for the Summer Games and move to an “events-based” system that would allow new competitions to come in, while keeping to about 10,500 athletes and 310 medal events. Host cities were also allowed to propose the inclusion of one or more additional events for their games, and Tokyo proposed baseball and softball as a joint entry through the World Baseball Softball Confederation.

Baseball and softball go back in as one sport with two disciplines, one for men, one for women. Both will be six-team tournaments; baseball in the past has had eight-team Olympic events. How the five teams other than host Japan will qualify has yet to be determined, but both disciplines will be played in Yokohama Stadium, the 30,000-seat home of Nippon Professional Baseball’s BayStars.

There’s no indication at this time of what level of player would play in the Olympics. Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association have not committed to using big leaguers in the Olympics, which are scheduled for July 24-Aug. 9, 2020 in Tokyo. One discipline’s athletes will walk in the Opening Ceremonies, then play a seven-day tournament, then leave the Olympics to make room for the other discipline’s athletes, who will play their tournament, then walk in the closing ceremonies.

Whether it’s big leaguers, ex-big leaguers, minor leaguers (the case for the U.S. and Canadian teams in 2000, ’04 and ’08) or some other players, baseball will be back in the Olympics in 2020, and that’s a boon for baseball on the international stage.

Inclusion in the Olympics is paramount for a sport’s government funding in most countries. When baseball was eliminated from the Olympics many international baseball programs saw their funding dry up. So the return of baseball to the Olympics will likely also help fund the sport in a number of countries around the world.

“We are excited about the IOC’s announcement restoring baseball and softball to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “Baseball and softball are global sports that belong in the Olympics. We are grateful to the IOC Executive Board, the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee and the World Baseball Softball Confederation for their collective efforts, which will allow fans throughout the world to again enjoy Baseball and Softball on the Olympic stage.”

— With reporting by John Manuel

WBC Taking Shape

The 2017 World Baseball Classic continued to take shape with the announcement of South Korea and Japan as first-round venues for the next iteration of the tournament.

Japan has served as a WBC pool-play host in each of the first three WBCs in 2006, ’09 and ’13, and once again the Tokyo Dome will play host to pool play in 2017. Japan’s team, which won the first two WBCs and was a semifinalist in 2013, will host Pool A, joined by Australia, China and Cuba. Dates for Pool A will be March 7-16.

The bigger news was that South Korea, a WBC finalist in ’06 and semifinalist in ’09, will be a host for the first time. Pool B, scheduled for March 7-11 in Seoul, will include the Netherlands, Taiwan and the winner of September’s qualifier in Brooklyn. Brazil, Great Britain, Israel and Pakistan will compete in that qualifier Sept. 22-25.

While the qualifier is being played at Brooklyn’s MCU Park, Pool B of the WBC will be played in Seoul’s new Gocheok Sky Dome, home of the Korean Baseball Organization’s Nexen Heroes. The ballpark opened in September 2015, with a capacity of 17,000. Seoul has served as host of international baseball events before, including the 1988 Olympics, when the U.S. won the gold medal while baseball was still a demonstration sport.

“We are very delighted to host the WBC for the first time in South Korea,” said KBO commissioner Koo Bon-neung said in a statement. “We will try our best to make the event a baseball festival that everyone in the world can enjoy.”

Two teams from each pool will advance to the second round of the Classic, which was won by the Dominican Republic in 2013.

— John Manuel

MLB To End Support For ABL

Major League Baseball will no longer give financial support to the Australian Baseball League, but the ABL plans to continue play, albeit with a reduced schedule.

MLB funded 75 percent of the league’s operation since 2010, but has decided after years of losses to redirect funds to developing the sport in Australia, according to the Herald Sun newspaper of Sydney, Australia. MLB did not immediately comment on the report.

“There is no question their exit is going to have a material impact on the league but they’re still heavily committed to the game,” Baseball Australia chief executive Brett Pickett told the newspaper.

The ABL plans to play again in 2016, but with a 40-game schedule rather than 55. Players such as Travis Demeritte (Braves), Justin Williams (Rays), Nick Ciuffo (Rays) and Correlle Prime (Rockies) participated in the 2015-16 season.

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