Despite baseball making its triumphant return to the Olympics this year, nobody really seemed very excited to watch. There were probably a lot of factors that went into the lack of hype: general lack of public interest in the Olympics as a whole, the fact that Major League Baseball was going through one of the most pivotal junctures of its season, the fact that the Olympics themselves didn’t seem to be taking baseball or softball very seriously, etc. However, one of the most likely reasons is the lack of baseball star power on the rosters.
The most recognizable name on the United States roster was 2015 Home Run Derby champ Todd Frazier. There was a time where Todd Frazier’s name drew crowds from all around, but that time came and went long ago. Eddy Alvarez had a great storyline attached to him — having earned a silver medal in speed skating during the 2014 Winter Olympics, but baseball fans had no reason to be attached to him.
Earlier today, the gold medal game was played to finish off a riveting tournament involving just six teams. As was the case with the American softball team, U.S. baseball took home the silver after losing to Japan. While the American roster consisted of long-time Minor Leaguers and former Major Leaguers looking to add a gold medal to their resume, the Japanese team consisted of some of the best athletes they could muster up. In fact, while MLB continued to play its games practically ignoring the Olympics altogether, the Nippon Professional Baseball league (Japan’s premier pro league) halted an already COVID-shortened season entirely so that they could put their best foot forward in Tokyo. The Japanese roster included five pitchers (as well as Masahiro Tanaka — a two-time All-Star during his time in MLB) and eight position players who participated in their league’s All-Star Game on July 17.
Now, maybe Japan just wanted to make sure they tried their best in front of their home crowd. Maybe Japan wouldn’t have been able to resume the NPB season because of all the Olympic fanfare that was going on. But still, it’s obvious that Japan wanted that gold medal far more than the U.S. did. So I guess the question I’m asking is: “Should Major League Baseball have taken a short hiatus, like NPB did, in order to field a more competent team in the Olympics?”
Major League Baseball already takes a hiatus from its regularly scheduled programming in order to make way for the World Baseball Classic —but, in all fairness, the WBC is always slated during Spring Training, so having players miss that time in order to play for their country isn’t too much of a problem. So, what would have happened had Major League Baseball decided to allow its players to participate in the Olympics? Well, not much really. Despite several teams having more than capable national teams (such as Cuba, Venezuela, and Canada), only six teams were allowed to compete for the gold: the United States, Japan, Israel, Mexico, South Korea, and the Dominican Republic. While having more big-name MLB players available might have swayed the Olympic Committee’s decision to allow just six teams to qualify, that’s still questionable.
Had Major League Baseball decided to halt the season for the Olympics, we might still be looking forward to the MLB trade deadline. That deadline was one of the most exciting in recent memory. Several big name stars were shipped to new destinations. For weeks leading up to the deadline, there were rumors swirling about who would be sent away. Could you imagine if those rumors were still going around while some of those players were suiting up in the Olympics? That’d be a major distraction. It’s not too far-fetched to think that players like Kris Bryant, Joey Gallo, Eddie Rosario, and Javy Baez (all of whom were traded at the deadline) could have participated in Olympic qualifiers had MLB allowed them. I understand that players undergo that type of pressure every year at the deadline while they suit up for their MLB teams, but having to endure those rumors while participating in games unrelated to Major League Baseball would probably feel different.
All in all, baseball never needed the Olympics. Rather, the World Baseball Classic has served as the sport’s “Olympics” since its inception in 2006. It doesn’t interfere with the MLB schedule and provides a much fuller tournament. In the 2017 WBC alone, there were 16 teams competing for the title. Yadier Molina, Christian Yelich, Nolan Arenado, Baez, Marcus Stroman, Carlos Correa, and many of the game’s biggest stars were all participating. That blows the Olympics out of the water. Should MLB have given its players the option to participate in the Olympics? Maybe, but that would lose the league and its teams money, so that is never going to happen.
While I would have loved to see the United States take home gold, it seems as though most of the baseball world doesn’t take the Olympics seriously. Based on the level of the lack of teams participating in the tournament, I don’t blame them.