Monday, August 25, 2008

It's clear why baseball will not be at 2012 Games

BEIJING -- In the great rematch with the great rival for a chance at an Olympic gold medal, the United States sent to the mound a 20-year-old college kid. Cuba sent a 37-year-old veteran of two previous Olympics and three World Cups.

If this has a familiar ring, it should. It is basketball 20 years ago. Basketball did something about it. Baseball has not.

That is the difference between the two sports in imagination and leadership. And it explains why there will be no Olympic baseball tournament at the 2012 Games in London.

When Cuba had polished off its 10-2 victory Friday, denying the U.S. a chance at a gold medal for the fourth time in five Olympic baseball tournaments, someone asked manager Davey Johnson how America could compete, assuming baseball ever returns to the Olympics, with college kids and minor leaguers.

"It's very difficult for us because major league baseball is very big business and a lot of players that have potential to play in the big leagues, they're either called up or not allowed to come here," Johnson said.

This is why the Olympic baseball tournament is a joke, and why the International Olympic Committee was right to kill it.

With a wave of its wand, major league baseball could create an Olympic tournament with every bit the star power of the Olympic basketball tournament, which has become a magnet for fans and a driver of that sport's growth globally.

But it hasn't, and probably won't, for one simple reason: Baseball's leadership lacks the foresight to see what might be. It lacks the creativity to do what is in its own best interest.

Baseball claims it doesn't need a real Olympic tournament because it has the World Baseball Classic, but the truth is the World Baseball Classic is a fatally flawed model for a true world championship.

It takes place in March, when major league pitchers are a month away from being ready to pitch in games that count. The number of pitches they can throw at that time of year is rightly limited. It's better than the Olympic tournament because the right players are there, more or less, but it's at the wrong time of year to get prime time performances out of them.

No, the Olympic tournament is much better timed, but insiders despair of major league owners or commissioner Bud Selig ever showing the vision it would take to get it done.

"I think that'd be great, but I think that's a decision that major league baseball would have to make," Johnson said. "Now that we have the World Baseball Classic, I don't see them probably doing that."

Harvey Schiller, president of the International Baseball Federation, floated a plan just this week that would allow major league stars to join the Olympic tournament for just the medal round, reducing the disruption to baseball's regular season to just a few days every four years.

Hockey, of course, found a way to interrupt its season for the Winter Games. Basketball discovered the Olympic tournament was an enormous boon to its international growth.

"I think it would really be great," Johnson repeated, "but baseball is such a big business in the United States. It's the off-season in basketball. If it was during the NBA season, I'd be amazed if they let 'em come."

Johnson may not be familiar with NBA commissioner David Stern's commitment to grow his game internationally. There is no going back now. The best NBA players are rock stars at the Olympics and they turn it into a global advertisement they could not buy.

Without Schiller's screwy artifice, which would require backbenchers to earn a spot in the medal round, then stand aside for the stars, the Olympics could structure an eight-team tournament that would take a single week to play. Once every four years, instead of a four-day All-Star break, baseball could have a seven- or eight-day Olympic break.

It could build a competitive field right now of the U.S., the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The Dominican might well be the favorite.

The venues would be packed, which China's small, temporary Wukesong Stadium was not for Friday's game between Cuba and a bunch of unknown American minor leaguers.

The U.S. was in it for a while, trailing 4-2 after six, but Cuba batted around in the eighth against a pair of farmhands to blow it open. It was 20 years ago, at the 1988 Games in Seoul, that basketball realized college kids could no longer beat the best pros from other countries. Stern convinced NBA owners to let their players participate. Now the NBA is a global brand.

Commissioner Bud has copied virtually every other Stern marketing initiative. Perhaps Schiller can convince him to copy this one, too, and give his game a star-studded international showcase.

If he does, baseball could be back in the Olympics by 2016 as a marquee event, rivaling basketball for marquee value. If he doesn't, the tournament deserves to die. The Olympics feature the best in the world in each discipline. It is not a place for minor leaguers, no matter how promising their futures might be.

Baseball can grow the game globally or not. It is entirely up to baseball.

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