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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

Bryce Harper wants MLB players in Olympics; here’s what Rob Manfred has said

Bryce Harper
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Count Bryce Harper, the Philadelphia Phillies outfielder, as somebody who would prefer to take a break during an MLB season to play in the Olympics.

MLB has never participated in the Olympics, which always fell during the regular season when baseball was part of the regular Olympic medal program from 1992-2008. It will be staged at the Tokyo Games in 2021, but not in 2024.

It could be proposed to be added by Los Angeles Olympic organizers for the 2028 Games, which would require an IOC approval, as would any proposal for baseball to return to the regular Olympic program.

As in 1992-2008, the Tokyo Olympic baseball tournament is expected to include minor leaguers but nobody on active MLB rosters. When IOC members voted baseball out of the Olympic program — by a 54-50 vote — one of the strikes against it was lack of MLB participation.

“You want to grow the game? You want to really take it to different countries and different places? You put the baseball back into the Olympics but let the big-league players play,” Harper said on a Barstool Sports podcast published this week. “That is an absolute joke to me, and I’ve said it a million times.”

After baseball was added to the Tokyo Olympics back in 2016, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred repeated that he didn’t see MLB changing its stance from prior Games and allowing its stars to take part.

“I can’t imagine a situation where we would take the kind of break that would be necessary to have our best players in the Olympics,” Manfred said in 2017. “As a result of that, we feel the WBC [World Baseball Classic] is crucial as a substitute, a premiere international tournament that allows our players to play for their countries.”

The World Baseball Classic is baseball’s flagship international tournament, held every four years (and next scheduled in 2021) outside of the MLB regular season. MLB stars participate.

“I’m taking the WBC out,” said Harper, who has never competed in the World Baseball Classic. “I’m not a big WBC guy. That’s not the Olympics. I’m not saying it’s bad. Seeing USA win it last time was awesome.”

The U.S. has yet to qualify for the six-team Tokyo Olympic baseball tournament, getting upset by Mexico in the Premier12 tournament in November. That U.S. team was made up of mostly double-A and triple-A caliber players.

For the next Olympic qualifier, originally scheduled for March, MLB expanded eligible players to include those on MLB 40-man rosters (but not active 26-man rosters). That qualifier was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m not saying this is disrespect to any minor leaguers or anything like that,” Harper said. “The 2020 Olympics in Japan, in Tokyo, and you’re not sending big-league guys? Are you kidding me? You want to grow the game as much as possible, and you’re not going to let us play in the Olympics because you don’t want to cut out on money for a two-week period? Like, OK, that’s dumb.”

Harper noted that the NHL took a break in its season every four years to participate in the Winter Olympics from 1998 through 2014.

Japan’s top league is expected to take a break in its season for Olympic participation. But Japan’s biggest baseball stars, like Shohei Ohtani and Masahiro Tanaka, are in the MLB and are in line to miss the Games.

“Everybody watches the Olympics,” Harper said. “I remember huddling around, when I was younger, Winter Olympics, Summer Olympics, watching Michael Phelps do his thing, watching Shaun White do his thing. You know, you’re seeing all this stuff and all these freaking people come from every single country watching cross-country skiing.”

Many players who eventually became MLB stars participated in the Olympics, including Mark McGwire and Barry Larkin in 1984, when baseball was a demonstration, non-medal sport. More recently, Jason Giambi and Nomar Garciaparra (1992), Troy Glaus (1996), Roy Oswalt and Ben Sheets (2000) and Stephen Strasburg (2008).

“They need to figure it out because there’s no greater place to grow the game than the Olympics. Not even close,” Harper said. “Why not shock the world and put all your big leaguers back into it?”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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