Baseball and softball will be back in the Olympics in 2020. As someone who believes baseball to be the best sport in the world, this is pleasing. This fits my narrow worldview. More baseball, I say. Why waste Monday nights on football all winter when there’s perfectly exciting Venezuelan Winter League action just waiting for us? And how dare you have an international sportsball competition every four years without the greatest sportsball of all. Of course baseball should be in the Olympics.
Chances that I’ll watch a lot of Olympic baseball: Eh.
That’s because I’m a hypocrite, but there’s more to it than that. I’m a sucker for the Olympics, an absolute fool. But the point is to watch sports you don’t care about 47 months out of 48. It’s possible to watch 17 hours of handball highlights on YouTube whenever I want, but of course I’ll never do it. Slap a five-ring watermark on the bottom of the screen, though, give me an appointment, and I’m in. I’ll watch it all night. I'm watching Iraq and Denmark play soccer right now, if you don't believe me.
But baseball is a sport that some of us watch for hundreds and hundreds of hours every year. There’s no freshness, no sense of something relatively exotic. That’s not to mention that you’re promised an inferior version of the same game we’re all familiar with. This isn’t Team USA, with Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, going up against Team Venezuela, with Felix Hernandez and Miguel Cabrera. If we can’t get that every three years in the World Baseball Classic, how are we supposed to get that in the Olympics?
Not only will there will never be a Dream Team, but Olympic baseball will be counter-programmed with a) other Olympic sports and b) the major league baseball that people actually care about. That’s a brutal one-two punch for any event looking for American attention. The rest of the baseball world cares, mind you. Other countries won’t have any problems sending their best, most exciting players — Nippon Professional Baseball shuts their season down. The rest of the world won’t have a problem watching. Here (and in Canada), though? Interest will be limited, to put it gently.
That leaves it up to us to figure out how to make Olympic baseball as watchable as possible for North Americans. We have ideas.
Idea #1: Move the Summer Olympics to January
Some ideas are better than others, but if you’ll just hear me out on this one ...
Idea #2: Prospects, prospects, prospects
This would get a little tricky, considering that teams like to have options in the event of a vacancy at the major league level, but start with the prospects in short-season ball and Class-A, the ones who aren’t likely at all to get called up, even when the rosters expand. Move to the Double-A and Triple-A prospects who might not have an obvious spot on the major league roster. The Futures Game gets some eyeballs every year, so why not make the Olympic rosters something like a Futures Game on ster... that is, you know, an enhanced Futures Game.
The last Olympic rosters featured prospects. There just weren’t enough of them. There were just four players on the United States roster who made Baseball America’s top-100 list before the season:
- Matt LaPorta - No. 23
- Brett Anderson - No. 6
- Dexter Fowler - No. 74
- Taylor Teagarden - No. 80
As a Giants fan following an awful team at the time, it was moderately exciting to watch their No. 4 prospect, Nate Schierholtz, but it wasn’t exactly appointment television. The rest of the team was filled with career minor leaguers (Mike Hessman, John Gall), quad-A players who hadn’t been able to stick in the majors (Jayson Nix, Brian Barden), and youngish prospects on their way up (Trevor Cahill, Jake Arrieta). That doesn’t make for bad baseball, mind you. It was an eclectic mix that made for some pretty good baseball, especially with Stephen Strasburg as the lone representative from the college ranks.
Make it more of a Super Futures Game, though, and it would split the difference between the 2008 strategy of not considering major leaguers and the Japanese strategy of shutting everything down. It would be a small sacrifice for the industry, but it would make the games instantly compelling for baseball fans who are already saturated with baseball.
Idea #3: The Expendables
Last month, I wouldn’t have entertained this idea for more than a couple seconds. Getting recently retired players to train for competitive baseball again? Seems like a great way for them to miss out on golf and fishing, which both happen to be great ways to not miss out on noontime beer. I would enjoy retirement at my age. I would have plans, and those plans would involve not having plans.
But ex-players get the itch. Enough to play for a little bit of money for charity and a trophy if the National Baseball Congress is any indication:
Joining (Roger) Clemens on the Stars are other former MLB all-stars such as Tim Hudson, Josh Beckett, Ben Sheets, Roy Oswalt, Dan Uggla, Brad Penny, Jason Isringhausen, J.D. Drew, Jack Wilson and Brandon Inge, all of whom are volunteering their services.
Look at that rotation. Stallone, Lundgren, Van Damme ... they’re all there. I can’t imagine that any of them are major league quality right now — or, I don’t know, maybe they would be in the majors — but they’re still competitive enough to train hard so they can play a bunch of college kids. You wouldn’t watch Roger Clemens in the Olympics? What about Roy Oswalt and Josh Beckett? It would at least add to some of the intrigue.
Idea #4: A combination of the last two ideas
Ben Sheets and Dansby Swanson, Anderson Espinoza and Bobby Abreu, old and new. Mash them all up, and make super-prospect-old-timey teams to compete with the professional Cuban, South Korean, and Japanese juggernauts.
Competitive? Sure. More watchable? Probably. Maybe. No promises.
Idea #5: Shut down Major League baseball for a month, just like the NPB
I will cut you, get away from my real baseball, now scram and don’t come back.
And that’s the insurmountable problem. What would all of this really do, adding slightly better prospects and some familiar names? Ratings wouldn’t triple. Olympic baseball wouldn’t be a sensation. We’ve amused some hardcore fans, but we’ve also done it at the expense of players like Mike Hessman, who didn’t get more than a handful of major league appearances, but has memories of winning a medal in Beijing.
Which means the status quo is probably the way to go, and we’ll just have to accept that Olympic baseball is an odd, quadrennial intrusion into a summer already overstuffed with baseball, and because there’s no way to get the best players in the world to represent their respective countries, there isn’t going to be a way to make Olympic baseball a thing, like you can with Olympic basketball.
I’ll watch in 2020. You’ll probably watch. But even if you get a little creative, there isn’t going to be a way to make everyone else watch. Having the best possible Olympic rosters is an impossible dream. Getting creative won’t help nearly enough. Olympic baseball will be Olympic baseball, for better and for worse, and it probably won’t ever be as interesting as the World Baseball Classic.
The good news? There will be Olympic baseball, and it'll be played at a pretty high level. My only regret is that it isn't happening right now.