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July 26, 2008
Can Of Corn
Fidel Castro recently called it the unsavory handiwork of "rich and powerful masters." What the terminally-aggrieved dictator emeritus is railing about this time is the International Olympic Committee's decision to drop baseball from the Games starting in 2012. His outrage is understandable: the Cuban national team is a source of enduring pride for Castro, and they've won three of the four golds that have been handed out over the years (the only exception being the 2000 Sydney Games, when Ben Sheets pitched the US to the gold). After Beijing, Cuba may not get the chance again. What probably also rankles him is that Cuba isn't well positioned heading into the forthcoming Olympiad. Japan, whose national team is larded with accomplished professionals, is probably the overall favorite, and the US national team, which notched a pair of recent victories over Cuba in international play, is the other team to watch.
As for the "rich and powerful masters" paranoia, it's a bit more complicated than Castro would have you believe. The IOC first voted to drop baseball, along with softball, back in 2005, without opting to replace the two events. It was a curious decision; while the sport of baseball is light on defining Olympic moments, it's been a part of the Summer Games since 1904, and it's been a medal sport since 1992. It's a sport with an increasing global profile as well. Still, that the IOC chose not to fill the two slots means that baseball and softball could be reinstated in advance of the 2016 games. The next move belongs to MLB.
The movement to oust baseball began in earnest in 2002, but it took another three years for the necessary votes to fall in line. It happened for two reasons: MLB wouldn't consent to the Olympic standard of drug testing, and MLB wouldn't release players on major league rosters to compete. Regarding the former matter, at the time baseball was in the nascent stages of its performance-enhancing drug scandal, and submitting to WADA levels of scrutiny would have been thoroughly damaging to the sport's image, and conducted over the collective dead body of the Major League Baseball Players Association. In other words, it would've been the ultimate ceding of control over a situation that demanded to be handled from within.
In addition, the Olympic testing regimen now in place can be charitably described as "onerous." (Oh, and-surprise of surprises-said regimen may not even be all that effective.) What's particularly invasive is that Olympians must regularly supply blood samples for HGH testing. Requiring athletes to give blood entails a whole other thicket of privacy issues foreign to your standard urine-sample testing procedures. Members of the US men's basketball team have agreed to such procedures, but only over the objections of the NBA and their union. The MLBPA, however, would never accept it.
The second reason that baseball has been forced out is not entirely unrelated to the first. Team USA is welcome to all the minor leaguers it wants, but major league players, as members of the union, are off limits. Even players already named to Team USA who are called up to the majors in the interim are deemed ineligible. Besides the drug-testing disincentive, MLB would have to gut its rosters in the middle of the season, or put the season on hold in order to accommodate the Olympics. On this point, I say bully for MLB. As a baseball fan, the last thing I want is for a hotly-fought pennant race to be compromised or tabled so that a number of the players vital to the drama can take time off for a meaningless exhibition.
Still, it's easy to see how the IOC is frustrated by the US offerings. Once you get past noteworthy performers like Brett Anderson, Dexter Fowler, and Matt LaPorta, you find that the US roster is largely peppered with names that only a Goldstein could love. And keep in mind that ours is one of the favored squads.
When it comes to major team sports, the IOC demands star power, and baseball is loath to provide it, at least thus far. The NHL, for instance, allows its players to take time away from the regular season in order to compete in the Winter Games. Baseball thankfully lacks this thoroughgoing desperation when it comes to the NHL's marketing of its product; while professional hockey isn't yet available for weddings and bar mitzvahs, it's getting close to that point.
Another factor in play is that one month before the IOC's decision, MLB announced the establishment of the World Baseball Classic-the sport's answer to soccer's World Cup. The IOC likes to think of the Olympics as the pinnacle of all international sporting events, and anything that takes away from that self-styled reputation is met with hostility. In a related matter, the IOC has long treated the principle of amateurism as a conveniently mutable one, so in a sense it's not surprising that it would resort to extortion in the service of getting more über-professionals to take part in the Games. That is, after all, what they're trying to do to baseball.
With all that said, the possibility remains that this is a temporary snub. As mentioned above, the IOC opted not to fill the slots that baseball and softball once occupied. MLB may infer that if they bend to the IOC's will on one or more fronts, then the sport may be rewarded with renewed Olympic status. Here's what Bob Watson, presently the GM of USA Baseball and a highly-placed executive within MLB, had to say about the prospects:
Major League Baseball, the IBAF (International Baseball Federation) and the IOC are working diligently to have a system where our big leaguers are playing. I think if Chicago or Tokyo would win Olympics for 2016, those countries are baseball countries, and they have venues. I believe they are trying to work up something, you have a few years to get a plan. There are a lot of moving parts, but don't rule it out.
Philip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune observes that Watson's comments can be interpreted as "an attempt to pressure the International Olympic Committee into selecting Chicago or Tokyo as the 2016 Summer Games host."
If the IOC makes a similar reading, they may be less inclined to make the concessions that organized baseball is seeking. In any event, when the time comes to negotiate an outcome for 2016, it seems likely that MLB and the Olympic decision-makers will remain at loggerheads. That's fine-sometimes a crippling stasis is a welcome thing. In the case of the Olympics, it's better that baseball participate on its own terms, or not at all.
And that's to say nothing of this atrocity.