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Mark McGwire
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When Mark McGwire played at the Olympics

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Mark McGwire may be the most famous Olympic baseball player.

McGwire, then a 20-year-old who had yet to play a professional game (and 25 years before he admitted to steroid use in the 1990s), beat out Will Clark for the starting first base job on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.

McGwire, Clark and Barry Larkin turned out to be the biggest MLB stars from those Los Angeles Olympics, where American players were recent collegians. Larkin remains the only MLB Hall of Famer with Olympic experience.

Tryouts included more than 3,000 candidates — from a 12-year-old girl to a 43-year-old man — scattered across 63 open one-day tryouts in fall 1983, according to Sports Illustrated.

McGwire, who went 4 for 21 in five Olympic games, and the U.S. lost in the final of that Olympic baseball tournament to Japan at Dodger Stadium.

“I don’t really remember,” much about the Olympics, McGwire said in 2014. “I remember I didn’t do very well.”

Though McGwire said in 2014 that he has a medal, baseball was merely a demonstration sport at those Games, hoping to join the official Olympic medal program.

“It was like a World Series atmosphere, for never being in a World Series at the time,” McGwire said of playing in front of a reported crowd of 55,235 in the night-time Olympic final. “Now I know what a World Series is like. But it was awesome, it really was. A packed house.”

The IOC approved baseball as a medal sport starting with the 1992 Barcelona Games and running through Beijing in 2008, but big leaguers never participated as MLB never took a break in its season.

Baseball returns to the Olympic program next year in Tokyo but will not be played at the 2024 Paris Games. It could be added for the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028.

“It was a great honor,” McGwire said. “Unfortunately, I wish I could say that I had a gold medal for it.”

MORE: ‘Derek Jeter of Japan’ set to star at Tokyo Olympics

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Baseball head pitches Olympics to MLB, again

Jake Arrieta
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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

Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

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NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold-medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes — less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

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