What would a U.S. Olympic baseball roster look like? Qualifying offers clues

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The second iteration of Olympic baseball may see a U.S. team with a similar background to those from the previous era. Especially if the roster for qualifying that begins this weekend is any indication.

Baseball returns to the Games next year for the first time since it was cut from the program after the 2008 Beijing Olympics by a 54-50 IOC members vote. Baseball and softball were both chopped, the first sports axed from the Olympics since polo in 1936.

They both return under a new IOC rule allowing Olympic host cities to apply for sports to be added to their specific edition of the Games. For Tokyo, baseball and softball were logical choices for inclusion.

Baseball is not on the 2024 Paris Olympic program. It hopes to be added for Los Angeles 2028.

At past Games, the U.S. baseball roster did not include active Major League Baseball players. MLB, unlike the NHL (until 2018), did not shut down its season nor make players on 25-man rosters available for Olympic selection.

USA Baseball general manager Eric Campbell said Thursday that a decision on the level of MLB participation, if any, in the Tokyo Games has not been made, or at least communicated to him.

Campbell said that for the 2008 Olympics, players not on 25-man MLB rosters were eligible. That U.S. team, as with past U.S. Olympic rosters, was mostly made up of minor leaguers.

For this month’s Premier12, the first of possibly three chances for the U.S. to qualify for Tokyo over the next six months, USA Baseball sought players who were not only not on 25-man rosters, but also not on expanded 40-man rosters that usually include organizations’ top minor leaguers.

Campbell on Friday confirmed a July Baseball America report that its Premier12 roster selection process began in April with a list of around 150 minor leaguers. MLB teams were contacted about specific players in the summer and had the option to deny player availability.

USA Baseball also looked at Americans in leagues in Mexico, South Korea, Japan and Chinese Taipei. In the end, the 28-man roster for Premier12 includes 26 who played for MLB organizations last season (mostly players of Triple-A caliber), one from Japan’s domestic league and one from Mexico.

For multiple reasons, USA Baseball hopes to qualify for the Olympics at Premier12, a tournament that starts for the U.S. in Mexico and, it hopes, ends in Japan in two weeks as the top team from the Americas. Obviously, qualifying as early as possible is ideal.

But also this: If the U.S. is not the top team from the Americas at Premier12, it can still earn an Olympic berth in March. But then it faces trying to come up with a roster at the end of MLB’s spring training rather than during the offseason. MLB teams may be less inclined to release minor leaguers.

“That’ll be a delicate dance,” Campbell said.

A possible Olympic roster could also include non-draft-eligible NCAA players coming off freshman or sophomore seasons, like Stephen Strasburg at Beijing 2008, Campbell said.

He also did not rule out USA Baseball contacting recently retired MLB players. That conjures Tim Raines, who tried out for the 2000 team at age 40, when he was not on an MLB team. He didn’t make it to Sydney and didn’t retire until 2002.

Of note is pitcher CC Sabathia, who announced before this past season that it would be his last. Sabathia threw in a Team USA warm-up game for the 2000 Sydney Olympics as a Cleveland Indians prospect before being pulled out of Olympic consideration by the club.

Campbell said there had been no contact with Sabathia about Olympic interest before or after he ended his career with a torn rotator cuff, labrum and bicep in his pitching arm last month.

Should the U.S. earn one of the four remaining available Olympic spots, Campbell expects the 24-man roster will have to be submitted at least a month before the July 24 Opening Ceremony.

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At the French Open, a Ukrainian mom makes her comeback

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Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, once the world’s third-ranked tennis player, is into the French Open third round in her first major tournament since childbirth.

Svitolina, 28, swept 2022 French Open semifinalist Martina Trevisan of Italy, then beat Australian qualifier Storm Hunter 2-6, 6-3, 6-1 to reach the last 32 at Roland Garros. She next plays 56th-ranked Russian Anna Blinkova, who took out the top French player, fifth seed Caroline Garcia, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 on her ninth match point.

Svitolina’s husband, French player Gael Monfils, finished his first-round five-set win after midnight on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. She watched that match on a computer before going to sleep ahead of her 11 a.m. start Wednesday.

“This morning, he told me, ‘I’m coming to your match, so make it worth it,'” she joked on Tennis Channel. “I was like, OK, no pressure.

“I don’t know what he’s doing here now. He should be resting.”

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Svitolina made at least one major quarterfinal every year from 2017 through 2021, including the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2019. She married Monfils one week before the Tokyo Olympics, then won a singles bronze medal.

Svitolina played her last match before maternity leave on March 24, 2022, one month after Russia invaded her country. She gave birth to daughter Skai on Oct. 15.

Svitolina returned to competition in April. Last week, she won the tournament preceding the French Open, sweeping Blinkova to improve to 17-3 in her career in finals. She’s playing on a protected ranking of 27th after her year absence and, now, on a seven-match win streak.

“It was always in my head the plan to come back, but I didn’t put any pressure on myself, because obviously with the war going on, with the pregnancy, you never know how complicated it will go,” she said. “I’m as strong as I was before, maybe even stronger, because I feel that I can handle the work that I do off the court, and match by match I’m getting better. Also mentally, because mental can influence your physicality, as well.”

Svitolina said she’s motivated by goals to attain before she retires from the sport and to help Ukraine, such as donating her prize money from last week’s title in Strasbourg.

“These moments bring joy to people of Ukraine, to the kids as well, the kids who loved to play tennis before the war, and now maybe they don’t have the opportunity,” she said. “But these moments that can motivate them to look on the bright side and see these good moments and enjoy themselves as much as they can in this horrible situation.”

Svitolina was born in Odesa and has lived in Kharkiv, two cities that have been attacked by Russia.

“I talk a lot with my friends, with my family back in Ukraine, and it’s a horrible thing, but they are used to it now,” she said. “They are used to the alarms that are on. As soon as they hear something, they go to the bomb shelters. Sleepless nights. You know, it’s a terrible thing, but they tell me that now it’s a part of their life, which is very, very sad.”

Svitolina noted that she plays with a flag next to her name — unlike the Russians and Belarusians, who are allowed to play as neutral athletes.

“When I step on the court, I just try to think about the fighting spirit that all of us Ukrainians have and how Ukrainians are fighting for their values, for their freedom in Ukraine,” she said, “and me, I’m fighting here on my own front line.”

Svitolina said that she’s noticed “a lot of rubbish” concerning how tennis is reacting to the war.

“We have to focus on what the main point of what is going on,” she said. “Ukrainian people need help and need support. We are focusing on so many things like empty words, empty things that are not helping the situation, not helping anything.

“I want to invite everyone to focus on helping Ukrainians. That’s the main point of this, to help kids, to help women who lost their husbands because they are at the war, and they are fighting for Ukraine.

“You can donate. Couple of dollars might help and save lives. Or donate your time to something to help people.”

Also Wednesday, 108th-ranked Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis ousted three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 in four and a half hours. Wawrinka’s exit leaves Novak Djokovic as the lone man in the draw who has won the French Open and Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz as the lone men left who have won any major.

The top seed Alcaraz beat 112th-ranked Taro Daniel of Japan 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2. The Spaniard gets 26th seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada in the third round.

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Marcell Jacobs still sidelined, misses another race with Fred Kerley

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Olympic 100m champion Marcell Jacobs of Italy will miss another scheduled clash with world 100m champion Fred Kerley, withdrawing from Friday’s Diamond League meet in Florence.

Jacobs, 28, has not recovered from the nerve pain that forced him out of last Sunday’s Diamond League meet in Rabat, Morocco, according to Italy’s track and field federation.

In his absence, Kerley’s top competition will be fellow American Trayvon Bromell, the world bronze medalist, and Kenyan Ferdinand Omanyala, the world’s fastest man this year at 9.84 seconds. Kerley beat both of them in Rabat.

The Florence Diamond League airs live on Peacock on Friday from 2-4 p.m. ET.

Jacobs has withdrawn from six scheduled head-to-heads with Kerley dating to May 2022 due to a series of health issues since that surprise gold in Tokyo.

Kerley, primarily a 400m sprinter until the Tokyo Olympic year, became the world’s fastest man in Jacobs’ absence. He ran a personal best 9.76 seconds, the world’s best time of 2022, at last June’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Then he led a U.S. sweep of the medals at July’s worlds.

Jacobs’ next scheduled race is a 100m at the Paris Diamond League on June 9. Kerley is not in that field, but world 200m champion Noah Lyles is.

The last time the reigning Olympic and world men’s 100m champions met in a 100m was the 2012 London Olympic final between Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. From 2013 to 2017, Bolt held both titles, then retired in 2017 while remaining reigning Olympic champion until Jacobs’ win in Tokyo, where Kerley took silver.

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