Baseball has had a tawdry history in the Summer Olympics. Rejected by the Olympic movement for the past 13 years, the sport is back in play this summer at the Tokyo Olympics because the host country is allowed to select several sports for competition, and the Japanese chose baseball as one of them.
These Olympics have been delayed a year because of the coronavirus, and there’s still a real question of whether the games will happen based on the continued spread of the disease in Japan and the country’s low vaccination rate.
That possibility doesn’t trouble Team USA manager Mike Scioscia as much as simply qualifying for the event. The U.S. has failed twice to do so in this cycle, but has another shot at it in the eight-nation Americas Qualification Event beginning Monday night against Nicaragua at Clover Park, the spring home of the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
“Whatever happens there is out of our control,” said Scioscia, who at 62 brings 19 years of managing the Los Angeles Angels to the table. “The only thing we can control is playing well in this tournament and qualifying. We’re not looking and saying that this is like our third bite at the apple.
“We know the challenge that’s ahead of us. And then hopefully we’ll go and play in something that will be very special for all of us.”
It’s a monster tournament as far as international baseball is concerned.
Team USA faces Pool A foes Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico on successive days. By Thursday, Scioscia will know whether the U.S. has a chance to play in Japan or will remain at home.
Group B includes Canada, Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia.
The top two teams by record from each pool in the first round play each other in the Super Round. The team with the best record overall will join the six-team tournament in Japan. The teams with the second and third best records get one more chance to qualify for the final slot June 16-20 at Taiwan.
Israel, Mexico and Korea have already qualified via earlier competition that transpired before COVID-19 struck the world in early in 2020. Japan earns automatic entry as the host country.
The U.S. has had a decided lack of success playing Olympic baseball, winning only the 2000 gold medal in Sidney, Australia, with a team of up and coming players and grizzled veterans that was molded by Dodgers Hall-of-Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, who passed away at 93 this past Jan. 7.
“I was fortunate enough to talk to Tommy about it,” said Scioscia, who played and coached under Lasorda with the Dodgers. “I was fortunate enough to play on two World Series-winning teams with Tommy. We won a lot of divisions with Tommy. He was always very excited and emotional. But I never saw him cry during our celebrations like he did when we won the gold medal.
“There were tears coming down his face, and he was so proud to have that opportunity. It meant a lot to him, and I hope to get the opportunity to do that, too.”
Scioscia, who has never worn the Team USA jersey, comes into it in a different era.
Major League Baseball’s refusal to send big league players to the Olympics has caused a rift in the movement. The sport is back in a shorter format for the first time since 2008, but its Olympic involvement appears dim beyond Japan because MLB won’t pause its season once every four years to allow the involvement of pro players for every country much like the NHL has done for most recent Winter Olympics.
The NBA sends its best in a “Dream Team” format, but the Summer Olympics occur during basketball’s offseason.
MLB allows Team USA and all others to only use players who aren’t on the 40-man rosters of the 30 Major League teams, and talented minor leaguers face restrictions by their parent organizations.
A largely inexperienced U.S. team lost to Mexico at Tokyo in 2019 as Mexico qualified and the U.S. didn’t. The Americas Qualifying Event was originally slated for March 2020 in Arizona, but was postponed when the coronavirus shut down baseball everywhere that month.
Everyone, including Scioscia, is learning on the fly. He took over the position barely two months ago on April 7.
“We’ve almost had to do a simplified speed version here of what we want to bring on the field and the pace we want to play,” he said. “That’s a little different than what I’m used to. We’ve made a quick study of the players, and we’ll be ready to go.
“Mega talent plays. Some guys are mega talents without experience and they’re going to outplay a veteran.”
Perhaps somewhat fortuitously, the timing of this year’s event coincides with the fact that MLB didn’t last winter sign hundreds of veteran free agents, who are sidelined for the current season.
That opened the door for this week’s event to veterans Matt Kemp, Homer Bailey, Logan Forsythe, Edwin Jackson, Jon Jay, David Robertson, Matt Wieters and Todd Frazier, recently released by the Pittsburgh Pirates, among others.
Scioscia, who hasn’t managed since he was fired by the Angels after the 2018 season, said he expects all that unsigned veteran talent to help.
Robertson, a gifted reliever for the New York Yankees as well as other teams, can still pitch, Scioscia said.
“We had a camp in Port St. Lucie for some of the guys who didn’t have spring training,” Scioscia said. “Matt Wieters was down there, Matt Kemp. Logan Forsythe actually signed and played a little Triple-A. Todd Frazier came down. Some of the guys are a little further away. You saw some of the rust, but they quickly caught up.
“The bottom line is, what can a player do on the field? We’ve got a lot of guys who were recently playing baseball who have that balance. They have experience and they still have that skill set.”
The format puts pressure on instant performance. The games are over before anyone realizes it.
Scioscia, who managed the Angels to a seven-game World Series victory in 2002 over the San Francisco Giants, knows the score.
“The most you’ll really play a team will be twice,” Scioscia said. “It’s different. The adjustments have to be made pregame or in the first inning. We’ll be ready to go, and hopefully we’ll make the adjustments that will get us to our goal.”
And that goal is qualification for Tokyo.
(This story has been corrected to show 2002 as the year the Angels won the World Series against the Giants; an earlier version listed 2000.)