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Baseball head pitches Olympics to MLB, again

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ROME — Baseball. In Japan. At the Olympics.

For World Baseball Softball Confederation president Riccardo Fraccari, it seems like such a sure home run that he can’t even imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to be involved.

No wonder the refusal of Major League Baseball and its players’ association to send top stars to the Tokyo Games has frustrated Fraccari for years.

Now, with the Olympics postponed for a full year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the current MLB season on hold, Fraccari has the unexpected opportunity to make one final pitch to the sport’s biggest league.

“Considering the damages from the coronavirus, baseball needs the Olympics now more than ever to boost the sport’s globalization, expansion and mass appeal,” Fraccari said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

“We need to make sure our sport doesn’t get trampled over by other sports that are becoming more popular with younger audiences,” Fraccari said from Switzerland. “The coronavirus is going to make us understand how important the Olympics are for baseball and softball.”

The only MLB players permitted to play in the Premier12 tournament last year were those not on 40-man rosters. Not surprisingly considering the rules, the United States finished fourth and failed at its first chance to qualify for the Olympics.

MLB, the union and USA Baseball changed the rule in February and said players not on 26-man active rosters or injured lists would be eligible for an Americas qualifying tournament that had been scheduled for Arizona in March before being postponed indefinitely because of the virus.

But teams that want to block players have claimed in the past they are unavailable because of nagging injuries. In addition, MLB teams imposed pitch limits on their players who went to the Premier12.

While Fraccari wasn’t interested in debating whether MLB teams were unfairly preventing their players from taking part in qualifying, he noted that “it won’t be good” for the sport if the U.S. team doesn’t make it to Tokyo. He added that he is waiting for the “right moment” before talking to MLB.

With the World Baseball Classic pushed back from 2021 to 2023, the Tokyo Games represent the sport’s only major international competition for several years.

“Why does soccer want to be in the Olympics? It’s obvious: because the Olympics — despite everything — is still the biggest event on the planet,” Fraccari said. “(The Olympics) is going to help revive the profile of baseball worldwide.”

MORE: Bryce Harper pushes for MLB players in 2021 Olympics

The 2008 Beijing Games marked the last time that men’s baseball and women’s softball were contested at the Olympics, after the IOC voted in 2005 to remove them.

As separate bids, the two sports failed to return for the Rio Olympics.

A move promoted by Fraccari to consolidate baseball and softball into one confederation in 2013 helped achieve reinstatement for the Tokyo Games as one of five additional sports.

With baseball Japan’s most popular team game, ticket demand for the Olympic tournament was unprecedented — at least until the games were postponed to 2021. And Nippon Professional Baseball scheduled a break starting July 21 through Aug. 13 to allow to players to compete in the Olympics.

“Let me say this: It’s been a huge success,” Fraccari said. “It’s obvious and natural that baseball — being the main sport in Japan — has this type of success.”

Under the original competition schedule for the Tokyo Games — which is expected to be duplicated for the new dates — softball was given the honor of being the first sport played with a tripleheader slated for two days before the opening ceremony.

The opening softball and baseball games were scheduled for the Fukushima Azuma Stadium as a tribute to the recovery of the area from the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters.

Then both sports move to the 35,000-seat Yokohama Stadium near Tokyo.

“This is an example of how important baseball and softball are in Japan,” Fraccari said. “The state is using the sport as an incentive for recovery from the Fukushima disaster. It’s something exceptional for them.”

Besides Japan, which qualifies as the host nation, only three other teams have secured places in the baseball tournament. Israel was the surprise winner of the Africa/Europe qualifying event, while South Korea and Mexico earned spots during the Premier12.

The last two nations in the six-team tournament will come from the Americas tournament and a final qualifying event in Taiwan.

Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Mexico and the United States qualified for the softball tournament.

While baseball and softball won’t be contested at the 2024 Paris Olympics, the sports hope to be back for Los Angeles in 2028 if the IOC revises the number of total additional athletes allowed.

“If it were to depend on Tokyo then we should already be in,” Fraccari said. “But it depends on this global reform.”

And, perhaps, better collaboration from MLB and the union.

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MORE: The greatest MLB players to play in the Olympics

Mark Spitz takes on Katie Ledecky’s challenge

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Swimmers around the world took on Katie Ledecky‘s milk-glass challenge since it became a social media sensation, including one of the few Americans with more Olympic gold medals.

Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games, took 10 strokes in an at-home pool while perfectly balancing a glass of what appeared to be water on his head.

“Would’ve been faster with the ‘stache, @markspitzusa, but I still give this 7 out of 7 gold medals,” Ledecky tweeted.

Spitz joined fellow Olympic champions Susie O’Neill of Australia and American Matt Grevers in posting similar videos to what Ledecky first shared Monday.

In Tokyo next year, Ledecky can pass Spitz’s career gold-medal count of nine if she wins all of her expected events — 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles and the 4x200m free relay.

Then she would only be trailing one athlete from any country in any sports — Michael Phelps, who has yet to post video of swimming while balancing a glass on his head.

MORE: Spitz puts Michael Phelps’ career in perspective

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Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

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Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

MORE: Past U.S. Open champions get wild cards

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