Olympic baseball is now finished, not for this year alone but most likely for years to come. The IOC and IBAF have now laid down their edict loud and clear: no top big league celebrities (“the best players in the world”) equates to no baseball on the Olympic scene. So much for the original rational of Olympic baseball which was to spread the international game rather than to limited it to the four or five countries that might muster enough top big leaguers to compete. So now we are left with the MLB World Baseball Classic–an event where the big leaguers have yet to demonstrate much real interest in taking the field in top playing form. We also have the IBAF World Cup–a “true world series” with an illustrious history, and yet also an event that few Americans even realize is on the radar screen. The alternative universe of international baseball will continue to survive in its own smaller sphere outside the purview of provincial MLB fans. And that might not be such a bad thing after all.
This year’s Olympic swan song for the sport certainly ended on a high note since this was easily the most competitive field of the five renewals. Korea’s breakthrough championship was the first for an Asian team and certainly the acme of that country’s chaotic baseball history. And the repeat flop of the Japanese Dream Team (which also failed to make the finals in Athens) sent out a strong message that Japanese League baseball has certainly dipped in status (and likely also in quality) and no longer boasts any claim to being the world’s number two professional league. Cuba has dominated the Olympics from beginning to end, and several futile USA efforts to elevate American baseball on the international stage have meant with only moderate successes over the past sixteen years. Japan has remained a perennial also-ran and the Koreans have had little to cheer about before their huge Beijing surprise. No other country has been much of a consistent factor on the Olympic stage. At the end of the road in Beijing, the overall final Olympic scoreboard will now stand as follows:
1. Cuba (3 Gold Medals, 2 Silver Medals)
1992 Gold, 1996 Gold, 2000 Silver, 2004 Gold, 2008 Silver
2. USA (1 Gold, 2 Bronze)
1992 4th, 1996 Bronze, 2000 Gold, 2004 DNP, 2008 Bronze
3. Korea (1 Gold, 1 Bronze)
1992 DNP, 1996 8th, 2000 Bronze, 2004 DNP, 2008 Gold
4. Japan (1 Silver, 2 Bronze)
1992 Bronze, 1996 Silver, 2000 4th, 2004 Bronze, 2008 4th
5. Chinese Taipei (1 Silver)
1992 Silver, 1996 DNP, 2000 DNP, 2004 5th, 2008 5th
6. Australia (1 Silver)
1992 DNP, 1996 7th, 2000 7th, 2004 Silver, 2008 DNP
1992 DNP, 1996 DNP, 2000 DNP, 2004 4th, 2008 6th
8. The Netherlands
1992 DNP, 1996 5th, 2000 5th, 2004 6th, 2008 7th
1992 7th, 1996 6th, 2000 6th, 2004 8th, 2008 DNP
1992 DNP, 1996 4th, 2000 DNP, 2004 DNP, 2008 DNP
Six other countries made a single Olympic appearance without finishing in the medal round: Puerto Rico (1992 5th), Dominican Republic (1992 6th), Spain (1992 8th), South Africa (2000 8th), Greece (2004 7th), and China (2008 8th).
In the end the Cubans hung their heads–both the 25 ballplayers on the field and the 11 million fans back home–after the near miss of capturing a fourth gold in five tries–but of course a silver medallion is hardly a badge of abject failure. Coming ever so close to another miracle victory in the bottom of the ninth, Cuba was simply outplayed this time around. But there were consolations aplenty. For one, there was another trip to a major international tournament final, something the Cuban juggernaut has never missed during the 47-year saga of its post-revolution baseball. For another, there was a second demonstration on the heels of the 2006 World Baseball Classic that, despite the increased presence of top professionals in international baseball, Cuba is still the main force to be reckoned with.
The American bronze medal finish must have been much harder to swallow by the forces of USA Baseball Inc. The Americans have been on a stated mission for four-plus years to avenge the 2003 upset Olympic trials loss to Mexico which kept them out of the Athens Games and wrecked a chance to defend the title wrested from Cuba in Sydney. Hopes were buoyed of late by a 2006 Pre-Olympics match defeat of Cuba in Havana, last fall’s first-ever American World Cup victory in Taiwan (also over the Cubans), and a pair of defeats of the Cuban juggernaut in Haarlem in July by the American collegiate all-stars. Yet in Beijing the Cubans nipped Team USA in the preliminaries and then throttled them soundly in the semifinals. The consolation for Team USA players and personnel, of course, was that almost no one back home was watching, and another Olympic baseball failure will remain in the nation’s sports consciousness for about two days at best. Not the case in Cuba, of course, where a “silver medal disaster” will be endless relived and debated by “eleven million managers” on the home front right down to the moment of the first WBC pitch in Mexico City next March.