BOSTON — Getting cut from the 2012 Olympics was a watershed moment for baseball and softball, the first sports to be dropped since polo in 1936.
Things didn’t get much better when golf and rugby snagged the final two spots on the Olympic docket for 2016.
But baseball and softball organizations have tried to take it in stride. Rather than dwelling on what went wrong, they are reinventing baseball’s international pitch.
That's arguably something that needed to be done regardless, at least according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Given the fact that many of Major League Baseball's players did not normally take part in the Olympics, the sport had lost much of its international following over the years.
The IOC's opinion, of course, is just one among many, but it is the one that counts when it comes to the Olympics.
Come 2020, the sports will have another chance to make it back into the Olympics. The question is: Will they be able to do it?
If they are, this enforced period of reflection could be just what the sport needed to revive its global presence.
“I think it is the dream of every athlete to represent his or her country in the Olympics,” said Riccardo Fraccari, president of the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), the governing body that represents baseball in its dealings with the IOC.
“I’ve tried to present our sport, baseball, as a global sport,” Fraccari said. “Only if we think this way can we really be considered a global sport.”
The IOC will meet in May in St. Petersburg, Russia, to hear presentations from the eight sports eligible for inclusion in the Olympic program (the seven other sports are karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding, wrestling and wushu, a full-contact sport derived from traditional Chinese martial arts).
Only one sport will get chosen, and whether it will be the baseball/softball alliance (they merged their application) remains to be seen. Fans will have to wait until September, when the 125th IOC Session meets in Buenos Aires, to find out which sport wins.
But in the meantime something called the World Baseball Classic — an international tournament that is currently running — will serve as a barometer for the bat-and-ball sports' chances.
A global outlet reinvented
The World Baseball Classic — commonly known as the WBC — is endorsed by the IBAF and backed by MLB. In an effort to expand baseball’s appeal abroad, countries and baseball federations around the globe came together to start this event in 2006.
This year's tournament began March 2 and goes until March 19, with games being held in Japan, Puerto Rico, Taiwan and the United States.
“[Baseball] got jilted by the Olympics, and it was left to think about how it could project itself internationally,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who has written extensively about baseball.
“The World Baseball Classic was simply the culmination of the redevelopment of the strategy to continue to spread baseball.”
MLB has worked with the IBAF, as well as other professional leagues, to promote the WBC since its inception seven years ago.
“The WBC hasn’t been spectacularly successful, but it has incrementally increased the interest in baseball in a number of countries,” Zimbalist said. “It’s a slow process, but all of the sports leagues have trouble in disseminating themselves to other markets.”
Zimbalist, who co-authored the book, “National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer,” told GlobalPost that the WBC is still finding its footing.
“Sports leagues, like any other business, want to grow but they can’t grow to new markets very easily,” he said. “This is the way baseball has gone about it. I think it’s a interesting innovation, but it’s a work in progress.”
The early innings
Team Japan won the first two WBC titles, but similarly strong showings by Cuba, South Korea and Venezuela speak to the high caliber of baseball that has been on display in those countries in years past.
However, MLB’s involvement has failed to generate a fervent following in the US.
MLB and its officials were unavailable for comment because of preparations for the WBC.
Phil Rogers, a national baseball columnist at the Chicago Tribune, believes the WBC hasn't made a splash in the US because teams aren't putting their best players on the field. For whatever reason — be it lack of interest or fear of injury — some players decline invitations to play, and the numbers add up.
“I think it is offensive that MLB tells us it’s a ‘really important event,’ and then teams are allowed to not go all-in participating in it,” Rogers told GlobalPost. “Artistically it’s going to be unsuccessful until major league teams get excited about having their best players play.”
The end result is a mixed message coming from the MLB and its players association.
“I don’t think there’s any question that MLB has only embraced the WBC tepidly,” Rogers said. “American fans that love baseball and their respective major league teams dismiss it as sort of a gimmick. If it got the best players it would get the response it deserved.”
For the first time, though, the MLB Network is set to broadcast all 39 games of the WBC.
Daniel Rascher, the director of academic programs for the Sport Management Program at the University of San Francisco, sees attendance as a key factor for the success of this year's WBC.
“The WBC has a lot of things going for it, so it’ll be interesting to see attendance by Americans at the various rounds,” Rascher said. “It’s going to become a major event that Americans will watch.”
Teams from 28 countries around the globe are participating in this year’s WBC, up from 16 in the first two years of the tournament.
Baseball’s Olympic prospects
But for IBAF President Fraccari, baseball’s global push is incomplete without Olympic inclusion.
“Of course we have to find an equilibrium between the costs and the benefits, but in some ways without the Olympics we remain a non-global sport,” Fraccari said.
With the IOC’s May meeting quickly approaching, baseball’s efforts are going to be under increased scrutiny. Rascher remains optimistic about baseball’s future.
“I really can’t comment on baseball getting in for 2020, simply because that is so soon in the IOC’s timeline of making changes,” he said via email. “However, I do feel strongly that baseball will return to the Olympics for the long haul.”
Until the 125th IOC Session, baseball will be trying to capitalize on the opportunities in front of it — starting with the WBC.
“I’d love to see baseball return,” Rogers, the Tribune columnist, said via email. “But the politics behind the Olympics make it hard to know if baseball will get another chance.”