Baseball in the Olympics

Yesterday Jayson Stark at ESPN posted an Insider article about Major League Baseball’s chance of rejoining the Olympics.  The seed for the article is the fact that more Americans watched the Canada-United States gold medal hockey game than watched the World Series (apparently).  He asks if baseball could replicate that kind of attention with Olympic participation.  He decides that baseball will not and should not, and his reasoning, backed up with quotes from Bud Selig, falls into these points:

  • You can’t suspend the baseball season the way the NHL suspended its season for the Olympics.  The summer games happen in August or September, which is too critical of a time for baseball.
  • You can’t suspend the baseball season because fitting in 162 games while keeping the playoffs from going into November would then be impossible.
  • You cannot shorten the baseball season because of the hit that would deal to baseball’s finances.
  • America understands and enjoys the Summer Games more, and baseball would not stand out in the Summer Games the way hockey stands out in the Winter Games.

Fair points, all.  He goes on to advocate for the WBC to be concluded during the All-Star break, which is a fun idea.  I’ve written about the WBC here before, but a couple of thoughts about an approach to letting professional players participate in the Olympics (should baseball be readmitted, of course).

The crux of the idea: let major league players leave their teams in order to play in the Olympics.

The cons:

  • Teams would lose their best players for a critical stretch of the season.
  • The impact on teams would be uneven (some might lose 5 best players, others might lose none).
  • Teams lose revenue, theoretically, from loss of star players.
  • Tension created between a country wanting a specific player, that player’s desire, and an owner not wanting the player to leave the team.
  • Team tension between a player wanting to leave for the Olympics, and teammates who view it as a selfish decision.
  • Taxing a pitcher mid-season, increasing chance of injury or fatigue for the playoffs.

(Notice how I started each ‘con’ with the letter T?  That’s the mark of a good, coherent thesis.)

Here are some thoughts for doing this anyway:

  • First, the Olympics are every four years, so this would not be a frequent problem.
  • Baseball currently has an image problem.  The Olympic spirit of selfless patriotism could inject baseball with story lines and personalities the game could use to counter its money-and-steroids image.
  • I think we underestimate both fans and teammates’ respect for a player being selected to, and playing for, their national team.  Evidence of this can be found in the Penguins-Sabers game yesterday, when the Pittsburgh crowd gave Ryan Miller a bigger standing ovation than it gave Sidney Crosby.
  • Nobody wants to tax an athlete into injury, but at some point you have to just let them play.  These are world-class athletes, and there is a chance of injury whether they play in Pittsburgh or Perth.  Pitcher coddling can be taken too far.
  • A fundamental part of sports is its ability to generate inspiring stories of courage and respect amidst competition.  For every fan who respects Pete Rose barreling over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star game, there is a fan who respects Sandy Koufax for not pitching on Yom Kippur.  Allowing MLB players to leave their teams to play in the Olympics has the potential to generate defining moments in the history of the sport.
  • Example: Imagine if the Phillies and the Mets are tied for first place on August 1st.  Johan Santana, David Wright, Roy Halladay and Chase Utley all leave for 2 weeks to play in the Olympics, with an unspoken nod to each other that they will have unfinished business when they return.  That story would linger beyond whatever transpired that summer, and be a moment both those players and baseball can point to with pride.

Sadly, I don’t think it will happen, and the WBC is probably hurting baseball’s chance of even being reinstated into the Olympics.  But it is nice to daydream about great acts of national pride in which millionaires forsake money to play their favorite sport in the most heralded athletic competition in the history of homo sapiens.

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