Baseball prepares for final pitch

Just days before the crucial 2020 Olympic vote, combined baseball/softball bid hopes its gamble has paid off.

    Baseball prepares for final pitch
    Professional MLB players, such as Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, are unlikely to participate in the Olympics [AFP]

    After striking out twice, baseball and softball officials are counting on a combined bid to get back into the Olympics.

    Following IOC vote defeats in 2005 and 2009 as separate sports, baseball and softball have merged into a single confederation as it competes against wrestling and squash for a single spot on the 2020 Olympic program, which will be decided by a September 8 vote in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

    "We wanted a partnership that could work together and use the attributes of both of our sports,'' said Don Porter, the American co-president of the World Baseball Softball Confederation.

    "We've got an awful lot of young female athletes all over the world that are playing our sport and there's a commercial side that baseball has that really strengthens our bid,'' Porter added.

    "So if we put it together it's a very strong added value to the Olympic program.''

    MLB hurdle

    The biggest obstacle to the bid is its failure to guarantee the presence of Major League Baseball players. MLB commissioner Bud Selig has said the season won't be stopped to free players for the Olympics, but the confederation points out that there is plenty of room for negotiations - seven years - if it makes the cut.

    "We never asked MLB to stop the season,'' said Riccardo Fraccari, the Italian co-president of the confederation.

    The bid proposes separate men's baseball and women's softball events of eight teams each, played as back-to-back six-day tournaments.

    That's a slightly different format from when baseball and softball were last played at the Olympics, at the 2008 Beijing Games. Baseball gained full medal status at the 1992 Barcelona Games and softball followed four years later in Atlanta. But both were dropped from the 2012 program in a 2005 vote.

    As things stand now, Fraccari is hoping some MLB players would come even if MLB doesn't stop.

    "That's precisely why we chose such a short program - to permit all pros who want to come to do so,'' Fraccari said.

    "And that doesn't apply only to MLB players but to players in all the major professional leagues around the world.''

    Amateurs only

    But as New York Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki - who recently passed the 4,000-hit mark in a career split between Japan and MLB - pointed out, baseball already has a successful international tournament for pros with the World Baseball Classic.

    While supporting the Olympic bid, he suggested it should be strictly for amateurs.

    "They really need to make that division of amateurs to professionals,'' Suzuki said through an interpreter.

    "Some countries are going to have all amateurs, some countries are going to have few. Some teams can then say, 'Well, we lost because we didn't have any of our professionals in that game.' So they just need to make it clear: amateurs are going to be here, professionals play in the WBC.''

    Pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, who is in the middle of a breakout season with the Los Angeles Dodgers and helped South Korea to gold in Beijing, favours a more open approach.

    "Each country should decide on that,'' Ryu said of the pros v amateurs debate.

    And there are plenty of countries to decide, with baseball a top sport in the Americas and throughout much of Asia. It's growing in Europe, too, as evidenced by strong performances from the Netherlands and Italy at this year's Classic.

    And while softball's epicentre remains the United States, who swept gold at the first three Olympic tournaments, Japan won in Beijing and Australia took home medals from all four Olympic tournaments.

    "The one thing that baseball and softball brings to the table and where it can help out the Olympic Games is the sheer size of the market and the sheer size of the number of boys and girls at the youth level that play the sport,'' said Michele Smith, who played on two of the American teams that won softball gold and also pitched professionally in Japan for 16 years.

    Another obstacle for previous bids was baseball's failure to crack down on doping. That changed earlier this month when 13 players, including four All-Stars, were suspended for their involvement in the Biogenesis drug case.

    "MLB is working hard to get it out of their sport and we commend them for that,'' Porter said.

    Still, baseball and softball officials realise that wrestling, with a tradition dating to the ancient Olympics, is the favourite.

    "But we still think it's open,'' Porter said.

    And if Tokyo is chosen as the 2020 Games host the day before the sport vote, all the better.

    As Fraccari noted, "Having their national sport in the Olympics would be special.''



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