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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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Bryan brothers to retire at 2020 U.S. Open, don’t plan on Olympics

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Bob and Mike Bryan said they will retire after the 2020 U.S. Open, ending a tennis career that’s included a men’s record 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

They also don’t plan to play at the Tokyo Olympics, their manager later said in an email.

The twins are 41 years old, having spent more than half their lives as professionals.

“A part of us, feels like, is dying,” Bob Bryan said on Tennis Channel. “But we’re really clear about this decision. It’s going to be great to have a finish line.”

Mike said that in 2020 they will play all the events they “really love,” including all four Grand Slams and American tournaments. The Olympics weren’t mentioned.

Rather, they will see how they’re feeling midway through the year, they said on the Tennis.com podcast.

The Bryans earned doubles gold at the 2012 London Games but withdrew from the Rio Olympics six days before the Opening Ceremony. They cited making their family’s health a “top priority” and later said Zika virus concerns were “a very small part of” the decision.

The Bryans own 118 titles overall but nearly ended their partnership after Bob underwent hip surgery a year ago. He rejoined Mike this season, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and winning two ATP doubles titles.

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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