A U.S. baseball team of unemployed, years-ago MLB All-Stars, minor leaguers and even a Winter Olympian qualified for the Tokyo Games on Saturday night, completing a wild two-year journey.
The U.S. won a North and South American Olympic qualifying tournament, going 4-0, capped by a 4-2 victory over Venezuela in South Florida.
The field for the first Olympic baseball tournament since 2008 is nearly complete: host Japan, the unlikely story of Israel, Mexico, South Korea and now the Americans.
A last-chance qualifying tournament later this month will determine the sixth and final nation, but it won’t be Cuba, the most successful nation in Olympic baseball’s previous stint as a medal sport from 1992 through 2008. Cuba was eliminated early in the Americas event and didn’t advance to the final, global qualifier.
Baseball and softball were taken off the Olympic program following the 2008 Beijing Games. When IOC members voted baseball out — 54-50 was the tally — one of the strikes against it was a lack of MLB participation.
Baseball is back after a rule change that allowed a host nation to propose additional sports for its Games. Baseball and softball, popular in Japan, were confirmed in 2016 for the Tokyo Olympic program (along with karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing).
Baseball will not be on the 2024 Paris Olympic program, but it could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.
Active MLB players will not participate this summer, but the U.S. will likely have familiar names. Those on the qualifying roster of 26 are prime candidates for the Olympic team of 24, granted they aren’t called up to or sign with big-league clubs before the Games.
🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸 USA Secures Olympic Spot! 🏆⚾ 👏 👏 👏
🇺🇸USA 2 -4 VEN 🇻🇪 #RoadToTokyo #Tokyo2020 @USABaseball @OaqBasebal pic.twitter.com/zjqGtoGG47
— WBSC ⚾🥎 (@WBSC) June 6, 2021
Start with Eddy Alvarez. The 2014 Olympic short track speed skating silver medalist, who last year became the first Winter Olympian to play in the majors (with the Miami Marlins), started three of the five games this week. He could become the sixth person to win a medal in both the Summer and Winter Games.
Matt Kemp, Todd Frazier, Edwin Jackson and David Robertson made MLB All-Star teams more than five years ago, but are in their late 30s and free agents.
Kemp, the former Los Angeles Dodgers outfield superstar, is the biggest name, but he didn’t play in the U.S.’ last four games. Frazier had a home run among four hits Saturday. Jackson, who pitched for a record 14 MLB teams, got the win; Robertson the save.
Adam Jones, a five-time MLB All-Star for the Baltimore Orioles, is also in the running. Jones wasn’t on the qualifying team because he plays professionally in Japan. Japan’s domestic league is taking a break to allow its players to participate in the Games.
Nobody with prior MLB All-Star experience played for the U.S. at previous Olympics. Two did for other nations — Australian catcher Dave Nilsson and Canadian pitcher Jason Dickson.
One could say that the U.S.’ crazy journey to Olympic qualification began on Aug. 7, 2019, when Joe Girardi was named its manager.
Girardi stepped down two months later and less than a month before the first Olympic qualifier, taking the Philadelphia Phillies’ job. He was replaced by another New York Yankees World Series champion, Scott Brosius.
Under Brosius, the U.S. was three outs from clinching an Olympic spot at the November 2019 Premier12, a tournament for the world’s top 12 nations. But Mexico, which never previously qualified for an Olympic baseball tournament, scored once in the ninth inning and walked off in the 10th in a winner-to-Tokyo game at the Tokyo Dome.
The Americans thought they would have to wait four months until the next chance to qualify. But the Americas qualifier, originally set for March 2020, was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic 10 days before it was to start.
During the extra year, Brosius was replaced as manager by Mike Scioscia, who won World Series as a player and a manager. Scioscia played catcher in the 1980s for the Los Angeles Dodgers, managed by Tommy Lasorda, who managed the U.S. to its lone Olympic gold medal in 2000. Lasorda died in January at age 93.
Fittingly, Scioscia’s roster for qualifying this week included one player from the 2019 Premier12 event — Brandon Dickson, the pitcher who failed to close out Mexico.
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