- - Thursday, August 4, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Baseball will continue its dance with the Olympics in 2020 when it returns to the Tokyo games.

The International Olympic Committee approved the return of baseball, along with softball, this week for the 2020 games – if the Olympics manage to survive Rio de Janeiro.

What that means for baseball, and its future beyond Tokyo, is as murky as the waters rowers will sludge through in Brazil. The game comes, and the game goes from the Olympics. And it appears Major League Baseball could care very little, one way or the other.

The last time baseball was in the Olympics was in Greece in 2008, but the IOC, unhappy that any players that the rest of the world would recognize didn’t participate, sent the game packing for the 2012 Olympics – the first time a sport was voted out of the Olympics since polo in 1936. Not to mention 80 years ago, when baseball tried to play its way into the Olympics in a dramatic scene in Berlin.

Baseball had its moments in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, the 1912 games in Stockholm and the 1924 Olympics in Paris as an exhibition event. But it was barely noticed.

In the 1936 games, though, baseball made its presence felt and appeared to be on the brink of playing its way into a regular Olympic competition.


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A former major league outfielder named Leslie Mann undertook the most ambitious effort to include baseball in the Olympics in the 1936 games. Mann played from 1913 to 1928 for the Boston Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Giants and Chicago Cubs. He was also a star college football and basketball player, and coached basketball at Indiana.

He convinced the organizers of the Berlin games in 1934 to host an exhibition contest between the United States and Japan – a “challenge” match. But by time the Olympics came around in 1936, tensions had risen, as the world was on the brink of war, and Japan pulled out.

That left Mann with a game of Americans playing Americans – though it was billed as a game between the world champions and the Olympic champions — and, like now, no major league stars. The trials for the team were held up the road in Baltimore.

Still, nearly 100,000 filled the Berlin Olympic Stadium to watch a 6-5 win by the “world champions.”

Even with the game against Japan falling apart, the attention was the most baseball had received in the Olympics, and appeared ready to become an Olympic event. But World War II stopped the Olympics, and with it momentum for baseball.

Since, there were the occasional exhibition games. In 1956 in Melbourne, more than 100,000 people watched the United States team face the Australians at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds.

It wouldn’t appear again as an exhibition until the Los Angeles games in 1984, and finally, in 1992, became an official Olympic sport.

Still, unlike the National Hockey League, who shut down their sport to allows its players to compete in the Olympics, baseball showed no such interest, and, with the creation of its own international event, the World Baseball Classic, it is unlikely you’ll see Bryce Harper or Mike Trout on the field at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

That American team will likely consist of a collection of mostly career minor leaguers – which doesn’t preclude it from being great.

One of the best events I covered at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney was the American team defeating the mighty Cuban national squad for the gold medal. Cuba had won the gold medal in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics without losing a game.

Former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda had convinced this group of mostly dispensable players – career minor leaguers, with very few prospects mixed in — that they were the 1927 Yankees. He had them meet with Ted Williams before they came to Australia and, upon arrival, declared that they were the team to beat in the games.

“[Baseball officials] told me that they weren’t giving me a very good team, and I asked, ‘Are they breathing?’” Lasorda said. “I have never managed a team that I didn’t believe was going to win, and I wasn’t about to start now.”

If the return of baseball in the 2020 games can recapture that 2000 magic, it may finally find a permanent home.

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