When the prize is an Olympic gold medal — and the legacy that comes with it — the emotions don’t need to be manufactured.
The Americans may eventually find solace in their silver medals, which became theirs after they fell to Japan, 2-0, on Saturday night at Yokohama Stadium. Baseball players aren’t generally accustomed to being rewarded so handsomely and publicly for being runners-up.
But in the first few moments after the 27th out was secured, all the Americans could manage was to slump over where they stood and gaze at their Japanese counterparts celebrating a championship.
“It hurts for sure,” Team USA left fielder Jamie Westbrook said. “I think we all think we could have won that game. But nonetheless, we’re Olympic medalists, and it’s been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Eventually, Team USA Manager Mike Scioscia gathered his troops and, in an unscripted moment that appeared to initially take Japan’s personnel by surprise, led them onto the field for an impromptu handshake line that managed to convey both the Americans’ gratitude to their hosts and their respect for a game and tournament well-played.
“It’s remarkable the way our team played under such different circumstances than we face back in the States in a normal season,” Scioscia said. “Every game was [like] a Game 7. … We got within a couple of breaks of winning the gold medal.”
The better team won here — Japan beat the United States for the second time in six days — as did the country that took the Olympics more seriously. The Nippon Professional Baseball league was shut down for nearly a month so Japan’s best domestic players could suit up for the national team, while Major League Baseball kept its season going, which meant the Team USA Olympic roster couldn’t include players on MLB 40-man rosters.
The gold medal was Japan’s first in baseball, and it could be the last one awarded for a while. This was the sport’s first appearance in the Games since 2008 after it was dropped by the International Olympic Committee, then added back this summer at the discretion of the home country. But baseball will not be part of the 2024 Paris Olympics, and though it is widely speculated it could return for Los Angeles 2028, that is far from a given.
“Baseball is played in so many countries around the world and continues to keep growing,” Scioscia said. “… I think it’s an incredible oversight not to have baseball included as a perennial sport in the Olympics.”
In a parallel universe — one in which there was no global pandemic and MLB thought enough of the Olympics to pause its season and send its best players to this tournament — Saturday night’s matchup could have been one of the most anticipated contests and most electric environments of the Games.
Imagine Japan’s Shohei Ohtani facing Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout at full-capacity Yokohama Stadium, with an Olympic gold medal on the line. This wasn’t that.
It’s no knock on the deep-hearted and highly likable members of Team USA to say they will never be confused with a major league all-star team. They were a ragtag but charming bunch of expat mercenaries, past-their-prime former stars and prospects of varying promise and pedigree.
Many Team USA players arrived here from Class AAA, a few from Class AA. Todd Frazier, a two-time MLB all-star, was last seen playing for the Sussex County Miners of the independent Frontier League. Three of the Americans are employed by Japan’s NPB, including Tyler Austin, who plays for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars and thus didn’t have to leave home for the Olympics. Pitcher Scott Kazmir made $99 million during a 13-year big league career but most recently was toiling in Class AAA in the San Francisco Giants’ system — a gig he took primarily for the purpose of being eligible for the U.S. Olympic team.
“It was kind of eclectic. We had guys on the back end of their careers and some guys just coming up,” Scioscia said. “And where they met in the middle, they played great baseball.”
In the end, maybe their humble origin stories only made Team USA’s players more charming and relatable. And it’s not as if the baseball here wasn’t crisp and compelling. The two Japan-United States meetings were decided by a total of three runs, with Japan needing 10 innings to complete a 7-6 win during pool play.
On Saturday night, five Japanese pitchers limited the Americans to six hits and allowed only one runner to reach third base. It was a close game, but Japan had control almost from the start, scoring first on Munetaka Murakami’s third-inning homer off U.S. starter Nick Martinez, then tacking on an insurance run in the eighth.
The Americans displayed the sort of emotions you would typically see at a major league playoff game. Martinez let out a guttural scream and flexed his arms after recording a huge, bases-loaded strikeout to end the fourth. When Austin singled sharply to open the top of the eighth, he yelled into his own dugout halfway down the baseline.
“This tournament has been as intense as anything I’ve been a part of,” Scioscia said, “… including a World Series and I don’t know how many playoff games with the Dodgers. There’s an intensity there.”
A crowd of about 500, composed of what appeared to be a mixture of Tokyo 2020 volunteers, media members and members of team delegations, made just enough noise to give the game’s biggest moments a modicum of ambiance. But it could never take the place of the real thing — which would have been 34,000 cheering, chanting, flag-waving, going-out-of-their-mind fans.
By the time the U.S. players reemerged for the medal ceremony, decked out in their familiar head-to-toe whites, and as they draped silver medals around one another’s necks, their mouths were covered by masks, but their eyes betrayed the hint of a smile here and there.
“It’s a lifetime experience,” said Team USA pitcher Edwin Jackson, a veteran of 14 MLB teams across 17 seasons who last pitched in the majors in 2019. “I’m definitely grateful to call myself an Olympic medalist. It’s something I couldn’t have imagined.”