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Will Classic Resurrect Olympic Baseball?

by Alan Schwarz
March 20, 2006

SAN DIEGO--Reverberations from the World Baseball Classic are being felt for thousands of miles, from the Caribbean Sea to the Sea of Japan. They could also be stretching thousands of days into the future, all the way to the summer of 2012 in London.

The Players Association's Gene Orza and Major League Baseball's Paul Archey, the two main architects of the Classic, both said this weekend that the success of the inaugural WBC could cause the International Olympic Committee to reconsider its decision last summer to drop baseball from the Olympics following the 2008 Games in Beijing. Each said that he will make the appropriate overtures to Olympic officials after the WBC final between Cuba and Japan on Monday night.

"There's a decent shot that in the aftermath of this tournament, people are going to say that this baseball sport has international appeal, and it's not a solely American enterprise--and maybe it does belong in the Olympics," Orza said. Added Archey, "You look at the passion of the fans and the interest and the ratings worldwide, and I would think the IOC members have to be questioning whether they made a mistake. Clearly this has international appeal, not just appeal in one or two countries."

Last July, baseball and softball became the first sports dropped from the Olympic program since polo in 1936. Olympic officials have long frowned on MLB not making any of its top stars or players available for the Olympics--as does the National Basketball Association in its offseason and the National Hockey League during its regular season--instead sending mainly minor leaguers in 2000 and 2004. MLB's historically lenient anti-doping policies also hurt baseball's cause.

Orza said, however, that doubts as to baseball's international appeal also hurt the sport's image particularly in the eyes of Europe-based voters, who perhaps could be swayed by the success of the WBC. The 39 games will draw more than 700,000 fans, and both Orza and Archey said that the event will recoup its more than $50 million in expenses to turn a profit in its debut.

Orza emphasized that while last summer's vote appeared to kill baseball for the 2012 London Games, the decision could be revisited: "I know the IOC has the power to reinstate baseball for 2012," he said, "and that deadline has not yet passed." Orza said that he did not yet know the specific deadline.

IOC officials could not be reached for comment.

Baseball became a demonstration sport in 1984 and has been a medal sport since 1992. Cuba has won three of the four gold medals since then; the United States won in 2000 with a team of minor leaguers led by current Brewers righthander Ben Sheets.

MLB will certainly continue to not disrupt its season to make major leaguers available for any Olympics. However, Orza said that the WBC proves major league players are not necessary for an appealing, worldwide tournament.

"The Japanese team has two major leaguers on it; the Korean team has five to eight depending on who's playing; the Cuban team has none," Orza said. "There aren't very many American players playing in these final three games. That's the message--that there are players in the world who are capable of being the best players in the world, who are not major leaguers. So the absence of major leaguers does not necessarily define the value of having baseball in the Olympics."

Team Cuba spokesman Pedro Cabrera said that his national federation would join any appeals to Olympic officials to reinstate baseball. Speaking through a translator at Petco Park on Sunday, Cabrera suggested that MLB's reluctance to appease Olympic officials had been the cause of baseball's disappearance from the Games.

"When the Classic is over, we'll do an analysis of the whole structure of the event--we will have to do it ourselves, and Major League Baseball will also have to do it," Cabrera said. Asked if MLB were an obstacle to baseball in the Olympics, he added, "If they are, we'll have to find a solution to that. I think that the presence of Cuba in the Classic means that when we have communication, we can all come together and make things happen."

Japan manager Sadaharu Oh pledged to lend his support as well.

"This first WBC event has been a great success--it's showed a lot of positives for the baseball world," Oh said. "But I don't really know how the Olympic committees will perceive the success. If there's anything I can do to bring back this great sport to the Olympic games, I would love to do it."

Although plans for the WBC were formally announced just days after the IOC vote last summer--with MLB commissioner Bud Selig nonchalantly claiming, "I don't know if, frankly, I consider it a blow"--Archey said that the existence of a quadrennial World Baseball Classic did not preclude baseball's inclusion in the Olympics. He likened the WBC to soccer's World Cup tournament, which coexists peacefully with the Olympic Games.

Orza said the WBC, which is expected to be held again in 2009 and then every four years, will continue regardless of whether it resurrects Olympic baseball.

"It's a win-win situation for the tournament," Orza said of the WBC. "It either does that and has that to its credit, or it doesn't and it becomes a singularly worldwide event in baseball and it takes on increased luster and stature. So either way it works out."

Orza assessed the chance that baseball could be reinstated for the 2012 London Games at 50-50.

"If you switch around a few European votes, baseball is back in," he said. "I think that the European countries that did not vote for baseball see it largely as a uniquely American enterprise, and not appreciating the degree to which baseball has expanded to other countries."

Archey remained more reserved, but hopeful: "Believe me, we'll get the word out on this event. But it's not in our hands. We don't have a vote."

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