By PETER C. BJARKMAN*
(August 25, 2008) – BASEBALL has now regrettably taken its last noble bow in the Olympics, at least for the foreseeable future. We are now left with the World Baseball Classic, where top big leaguer stars have yet to prove they are willing to take the event seriously by entering competition in mid-season form. And there is also the IBAF World Cup every two years, but that is an event few fans outside Cuba, Japan and The Netherlands pay much attention to, or even know anything about.
Baseball’s truest “World Series” for much of the past two decades as been the Olympic venue dominated by Cuba, but also a scene of proud triumphs for the Americans (2000 Sydney) and now the emerging Koreans. And yet Olympic baseball has apparently marched into oblivion and is as dead as the big league Sunday afternoon double header or the sub-three-hour ballgame. For fans of the “national pastime”—the American, Cuba, or Asian versions—this seems at first hearing to be a disastrous piece of news. The high quality of the Beijing tournament should have stimulated an appetite for the international version of the game from all who witnessed matches in person or followed the video feeds on-line via NBC. The Olympic version of our sport certainly went out with a most appropriate flare.
Cuban players celebrate their gold medals after beating Australia at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
But there were also plenty of storm signals to be witnessed on the horizon in Beijing. The biggest fear going into to this year’s fifth renewal was that the game might never return. But now there seem to be even larger preoccupations to trouble devotees of international baseball. And these all have to do with the disturbing fact that if the game is salvaged it may well return in 2016 dressed in a form largely unacceptable to all genuine fans of the pastime. A bargain with the Devil known as the IOC now seems to be on the agenda of IBAF officials. We will perhaps give you your baseball back, promises the IBAF and the IOC, but we will make sure that you will hardly recognize it once its fits our convenient reshaping. The IOC has gone on record as wanting the sport only if it features “the world’s greatest players” and also only if it can be played in such a way that it fits artificial requirements of television, advertising and security schedules. The inherit logic of a sport whose essence is the absence of a time clock is of little consequence here.
The rules and the logic of our beloved game were already tampered with in Beijing and the results were not at all pretty. Games were played under a new tie-breaker format that seemingly all fans and all on-the-field participants strongly objected to. Key games of this year’s matches were decided contrary to all baseball logic, since after the tenth inning teams were permitted free base runners on first and second to start an inning, and managers were allowed to juggle their original starting lineups. Even winning managers lodged their strenuous protests, with Team Canada’s Terry Puhl voicing the most concise condemnation: “It certainly isn’t what we baseball people are trained to compete in”. And worst of all was the fact that the revised format didn’t even accomplish what it set out to achieve. Due to excessive scoring, numerous pitching changes, and often bizarre bench strategies, games were actually lengthened and not shortened, a negative outcome even for those championing quick endings as a desirable product. That is what inevitably happens when non-baseball people hijack the sport for reasons of commercial enterprise.
Now a more insidious plan has been hinted at by IBAF president Harvey Schiller. The IOC demands “the world’s best players” and that is what they must have, even if this kills the original motive for Olympic baseball, which was a desire to expand and not shrink the international game. Since MLB won’t shut down its mid-summer operations to meet the IOC thirst for big leaguers, the IBAF is apparently negotiating a deal that would put star major leaguers on the field only for the trio of medal round games. It is a plan to boggle the imagination in so many different aspects.
How could the new IBAF scheme ever be enacted? Would big leaguers be flown to the Olympic venue on two-day notice, or would we have a gap of a week or more between pool play and medal games? Would this not penalize the very athletes who carry their teams to the championship round? Players who lifted their teams into medal play would sit on the sidelines, robbed of their gold medal opportunity. And would not countries like Cuba, The Netherlands and Chinese Taipei, with few or no big leaguers, be squeezed out by a tilted playing field?
MLB is not the obvious culprit here, since it has resisted and not championed efforts to drag its stars into an Olympic venue. The true villains are the IOC and their partner, the IBAF. The latter has played right into the IOC’s greedy hands by agreeing to change the sport drastically just to keep it on the venue card.
Baseball’s international managers might be better served to take a page from the world’s true international game, soccer. Perhaps it would be better to ignore the Olympic venue and concentrate on the IBAF World Cup and the MLB WBC – both promising baseball-only venues. For why should we have an Olympic version of baseball, if what results has been tweaked and modified beyond reason? An Olympics without baseball is a sad prospect. But baseball with a crooked playing field and non-baseball playing rules is a far worse alternative still.
*Peter C. Bjarkman is the English-language columnist for http://www.baseballdecuba.com and is widely considered the leading historian of Cuba’s pre-revolution and post-revolution baseball. His award-winning books include A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (2007) and Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball (1999, with Mark Rucker). He is currently completing work on two volumes—Baseball’s Other Big Red Machine: A History of the Cuban National Team and Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1962-2007 – both scheduled for publication in 2008 by McFarland & Company.