As noted on Thursday, a six-man panel from the International Baseball Federation met with the International Olympic Committee yesterday to put forward the sport’s case for re-election to the Olympic programme. As expected, the IOC’s main line of questioning concerned the participation of MLB players. The IBAF’s response was promising even though they did not commit themselves to any specific plans in this regard.
If baseball is re-elected at the end of next year, the sport will return to the Olympic fold for the 2016 Games. That’s the best part of eight years down the line, so neither the IBAF nor MLB could make any grand assurances about the number or calibre of players that would be involved at this stage.
The line the IBAF have taken is to assure the IOC that more players will be available to participate than ever before. Dr Harvey Schiller, President of the IBAF, stated that “We’re committed to bringing the best players ever to the Olympic baseball tournament”, while a written statement from Bud Selig was read to the committee basically saying the same thing (“The 2016 Olympics will have the best representation of professional players in Olympic history”).
In both cases, they are being quite careful in not promising that the best players will be there, just that the pool of talent will be the best that has ever been sent to an Olympics. Current MLB players have never represented their countries outside of the World Baseball Classic, so this could simply involve each MLB team releasing a couple of their fringe players.
However, it is likely that MLB would make a greater commitment than this.
The Olympics is a difficult issue for baseball to come to an agreement on. Those focused exclusively on MLB are reluctant for there to be any change which could affect it any way. Those who have a wider view on baseball as a global sport know just how important Olympic status is in terms of gaining credibility and funding. The IOC are in a very strong position when it comes to gaining a commitment from MLB to release some of its players if the sport has any chance of making it back into the Olympics. Without a certain amount of compromise on behalf of MLB, it’s not going to happen.
The importance of upholding the quality and traditions of MLB should not be casually disregarded. One of the key features of the MLB season is the fact that games are played virtually every day, so bringing the competition to a halt for any length of time would be very unwelcome (particularly as concerns have already been raised about the length of the season). The IOC itself confirmed that they do not expect the MLB season to be brought to a halt to accommodate the Olympics, which means that MLB would have to agree to release some players while their competition is ongoing.
The very thought of this may fill MLB fans with anger, but if a reasonable agreement could be reached (e.g. every team having to give up two players of similar value for no more than ten days once every four years) then would it really be too much to ask?
The baseball Olympic tournament is not seen as being important in America, hence the reluctance to accommodate it, but if more MLB players were involved then perhaps the country would embrace it more? Schiller did state that if baseball was part of the 2016 Olympics, no MLB games would be played at the same time as the final.
I’m sure a lot of people who watched this year’s final between Korea and Cuba would tell you that it was one of the most enthralling games of baseball played in 2008. It would be interesting to know how many Americans saw it? Again, maybe if doubts were put to one side and there was more commitment to the event, traditional MLB fans in America would see that there is a place for the Olympics in the sport and that it has a lot to offer?
It seems as though there is a general reluctance within North American sports to get involved in international competition (although basketball and ice hockey have made some strides in this respect). This has always struck me as odd considering America is one of the proudest and most patriotic of nations. The World Baseball Classic was reportedly seen by many Americans as, at best, an inconvenience when first held in 2006, but as the tournament progressed you could tell that the unique nature of international competition was beginning to change more than a few minds. Hopefully the 2009 Classic can build on this and the opposition to international tournaments involving MLB players will soften.
That provides some hope for a compromise that will boost baseball’s chances of getting back into the Olympics, as does the fact that the four cities bidding for the 2016 Olympics are well set to accommodate baseball. Chicago and Tokyo obviously would be ideal, but Madrid and Rio de Janeiro also have “strong baseball programs” according to Schiller.
All in all, it appears as though the IBAF panel was able to put forward a strong and positive case. If MLB can offer some support, the IOC will have to work hard to ignore the sport’s claims that they deserve to be reinstated (and frankly shouldn’t have been demoted in the first place).