The 2008 Baseball Olympic tournament is about to begin. At 03.30 BST, Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands will take to the Wukesong Baseball field for the first of thirty-two games to be staged over the next week and a half. It is a crucial period for the sport’s international future, following the decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to remove baseball (and softball) from the Olympics after this year’s event. Baseball fans want to see the sport back in the Olympics for the 2016 Games (four years too late for us Brits, mind you) and a high-quality event this year certainly won’t hurt the chances of this becoming reality.
The Baseball Olympic tournament involves eight teams, drawn from a series of qualification tournaments that took place over the past year or so. Most of the usual contenders are there, with the one surprise omission being Australia. The Aussies excelled themselves in Athens four years ago by picking up the silver medal, but this time around they failed to make it through the final Olympic qualification tournament held in Chinese Taipei back in March.
The preliminary stage runs from today until next Wednesday (20th) and is a round-robin format. Each team will play the other seven teams once over the course of the week and the teams with the top four records at the end will move on to the semi-finals. Both semi-finals will be held on Friday 22nd, with the bronze medal match and the Final itself taking place on Saturday 23rd.
MLB fans will need to adjust to a few rule changes when following the Olympic tournament. The International Baseball Federation (IBAF) recently launched a new system to help bring extra-innings games to a conclusion. If the score is tied at the end of the tenth inning, the game will continue as normal except for the fact that each half of each inning will begin with runners on first and second base. The other main rule difference is the so-called ‘mercy rule’, whereby a game is declared a result if a team is ahead by ten runs or more after seven innings have been completed.
The eight teams
We start with the four teams from Asia. China were given a free entry into the tournament on account of being the hosts and they perfectly reflect their ‘wild card’ status. A developing baseball nation, it’s hard to know quite what to expect from them. While they are the team most likely to be ‘saved’ by the the mercy rule on a few occasions, you wouldn’t bet against them from pulling off a win or two during the round-robin stage while being spurred on by their home crowd. Chinese Taipei (otherwise known as Taiwan) might appear to be outsiders at first glance, but they’ve got a decent baseball pedigree, including a silver medal finish in the 1992 Games. They just missed out on qualifying for the semi-finals four years ago and if other teams fail to perform to their capabilities, Chinese Taipei could take advantage.
However, there’s no doubt who the Asian heavyweights are. Japan and Korea’s intense baseball rivalry was witnessed by an enthralled audience during the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Both have strong rosters, both are intent on beating the other and their clash on Saturday 16th should be one of the highlights of the preliminary round. Japan finished third in 2004 and a number of players who left Athens with a bronze medal have now made their way to the Major Leagues (Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kosuke Fukudome, Kenji Johjima, Masahide Kobayashi and Hiroki Kuroda). None of these Major Leaguers will be representing Japan this time around, but the strength of their own domestic Nippon Professional Baseball league means that they can still put together an excellent group of players. Winning the Olympics is a key goal for Japanese baseball and their roster reflects this, made up as it is by the best of their domestic league players. Korea’s baseball league might not carry the same reputation as its Japanese counterpart, but their national team has proved to be on a par with their more illustrious rivals’ side in recent years. Although they needed a second chance to qualify for Beijing (via the aforementioned Final Qualifier in March), they have the potential to make it to the semi-finals.
The Netherlands are the sole representative from Europe in this year’s Games, after three Euro teams graced the Olympics in Athens (one of which being the host nation). The Dutch qualified on account of their first-placed finish in last year’s European Baseball Championships after fending off Great Britain’s valiant challenge on the final day of the tournament. They have been the top European side for quite a while (their ’07 triumph being their fifth on the spin, and you have to go back to 1967 for the last time they finished outside the top two), yet making the next step up to being able to compete with the international baseball superpowers is no easy task. They will be without players such as Jair Jurrjens, Rick van den Hurk and Roger Bernadina due to the wishes of their Major League teams, which undoubtedly makes it more difficult for them to really mount a challenge. Still, they have some talented minor leaguers on their roster, not least pitcher Shairon Martis who picked up a save in the 2008 Futures All Star Game at Yankee Stadium a month ago, and top Dutch ‘Hoofdklasse’ teams such as Corendon Kinheim and BY Neptune are well represented. On paper you would feel that fifth or sixth place is their most likely finishing position, but they came fourth in the 2007 Baseball World Cup last November, which goes to show that they have a chance to cause an upset.
Canada appear to be something of an ‘in-between’ team. They have a solid roster, but it doesn’t look like having enough quality to challenge Japan or the two teams we will meet in a moment. Indeed, a couple of heavy defeats during some preparation games against the U.S. team last week wouldn’t have done much for their confidence heading into the tournament. MLB fans will recognise Scott Thorman, the former Braves first baseman who is now languishing in Triple-A, and they also have the veteran Stubby Clapp, who played twenty-three games for the St Louis Cardinals back in 2001.
That leaves the two pre-tournament favourites: Cuba and the United States.
Cuba have quite simply been the dominant force in international baseball for decades. They benefit from the fact that virtually all of their best players are available for selection, the only exceptions being those players who have defected to the States. With a pool of top talent who regularly play together as a team at international tournaments, they would be a formidable opponent for most Major League teams. Cuba finished second to Japan in the WBC back in 2006 and their Olympic roster includes several players who stood out in that competition, not least their big bull of a reliever Pedro Lazo, their combustible catcher Ariel Pestano and the multi-talented Yulieski Gourriel. Cuba’s record since baseball became a full Olympic sport in 1992 is three golds and one silver and they have won nine of the last ten baseball World Cups. It would be no surprise to see them add yet another gold medal to their impressive tally.
The United States are well aware of the threat that Cuba will pose to their quest to win an Olympic gold in their National Pastime; however, the one time Cuba didn’t win the Olympic gold medal was in 2000 when Ben Sheets memorably pitched the U.S. to a victory in the Final. And the one time in the last ten occasions when Cuba didn’t win the Baseball World Cup came last November, when they were beaten in the final. By the U.S.
Partly due to a somewhat muddled qualification process, the U.S. didn’t make it to the 2004 Olympics and they will be intent on winning back the gold medal that, in their minds, they didn’t get a chance to defend in Athens. No current Major Leaguers are on the roster, although Jayson Nix has played in twenty-six games for the Rockies this season. Instead, the U.S. are represented by some of the best young talent in the Minor Leagues. Matt LaPorta is perhaps the biggest name among them, his potential being made clear by the fact that he was the centrepiece of the return received by the Cleveland Indians when they traded reigning Cy Young winner CC Sabathia to the Brewers at the start of July.
Let the games begin
Japan, Korea, Cuba and the U.S. are the four teams most likely to make it through the preliminary stages, but Australia proved in 2004 that offering predictions on how the tournament will play out is liable to lead to embarrassment. The only certainty is that we will be treated to some great baseball games over the next eleven days.
Let’s hope the IOC officials appreciates them.