U.S. Baseball Team Hopes Beijing Isn't the Last Out

"We need to put a good tournament together and show that it is an important game," says USA's Nate Schierholtz. (By Ethan Hyman -- Associated Press)
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By Andrew Astleford
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2008

DURHAM, N.C. -- On the corner of Blackwell Street and Jackie Robinson Drive, fans bustled under an American flag and pushed past six turnstiles. The announced crowd of 5,088 converged upon Durham Bulls Athletic Park to enjoy a mild Saturday night and to preview the U.S. Olympic baseball team in an exhibition game against Canada, a leisure that may soon become obsolete.

By a 54-50 vote in July 2005, the International Olympic Committee cut baseball from the 2012 London Games, and the sport continues to face an uncertain Olympic future. In October 2009, the IOC will convene to vote on the 28 sports to be contested during the 2016 Games. Players and USA Baseball officials are optimistic that a clean, competitive tournament in Beijing will help to convince the IOC that the sport holds valuable global interest and deserves to be included in future Olympics.

"We don't need much motivation, because we know who we're playing for," said right fielder Nate Schierholtz, who played for the San Francisco Giants' Class AAA Fresno before joining the team. "But on another level, it's unfortunate that baseball is coming out of the Olympics, and we need to put a good tournament together and show that it is an important game."

Baseball has weathered a trying Olympic history. It first appeared in the 1904 St. Louis Games and began its traditional status as a demonstration sport, meaning teams competed but no medals were awarded. Until the sport debuted a tournament format during the 1984 Los Angeles Games, baseball had been absent from the Olympics for 20 years.

In October 1986, the IOC ruled baseball could become a medal sport, starting with the 1992 Barcelona Games. Over the next decade, numerous federations were established with ambitions of competing for Olympic gold, and today, 112 nations have recognized organizations.

The IOC's decision to eliminate the sport, its first such decision since pulling polo from the 1936 Berlin Games, has made USA Baseball officials approach the topic of reinstatement like a political campaign. With help from the International Baseball Federation, they say they are promoting baseball, their candidate, by educating population segments where the sport isn't traditionally well received.

Currently, Europe is being targeted. The IBAF Baseball World Cup, previously held in Cuba, will take place over 19 days in September 2009 in seven European nations: Italy, Spain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

"A lot of times, we're painted with the brush that we're popular in the Americas, which we know we are, and that we're popular in Asia, which we know we are," said Paul Seiler, executive director of USA Baseball. "But maybe in Europe and other parts of the world, baseball isn't as popular."

USA Baseball officials say their organization and other established federations have strong fiscal foundations to stay viable should baseball remain absent from the Olympics. However, they say developing federations such as Britain and Croatia that rely upon Olympic funding could feel a pinch.

"It would definitely set back a lot of clubs around the globe, especially in Europe, because they use some of the Olympic money to help seed teams throughout the year," said Manager Davey Johnson, who has been involved with USA Baseball since 2005. "To see that setback in Europe would be a drawback to global baseball."

The U.S. national team comprises promising players who were not part of a 25-man major league roster by June 26. They see the Olympics as an opportunity to heighten visibility within their respective organizations. Without the Olympics, future players' ability to garner attention may become more difficult.

"Obviously, we're all playing for the team, but on another level, it's international baseball, and it's in the news everywhere," Schierholtz said.

"We're going to be in the spotlight, too, if we end up getting some big hits."

Despite frustration surrounding the 2012 Olympics snub, players are confident baseball will continue to thrive domestically and abroad. They point to the World Baseball Classic's inaugural tournament in March 2006 as reason to hope that one day, like soccer's World Cup, baseball could become a fixture in the world's sports consciousness.

"I don't think it will hurt the sport," said pitcher Stephen Strasburg, a rising junior at San Diego State who struck out 23 batters in a game against Utah in April. "With the new World Baseball Classic, eventually that will be a big event.

"Either way, I think baseball is always going to stay popular."

Yet officials desire a return to the world's most visible arena. And because baseball faces an uncertain Olympic future, officials say there is little room for error. A positive showing in Beijing would represent the first step in a journey toward validation.

"It's a changing landscape, but at the end of the day, baseball has to put on a good show," Seiler said. "We have to have clean games, and we have to continue to show the IOC that when we look at our agenda of 28 sports in the [2016] Games, is this a plus or a negative in the evaluation? We have to be a 'plus' sport."

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