Scott Kazmir was emblematic of the plight of Team USA baseball in its run to a silver medal in the Tokyo Olympics, which concluded with a 2-0 loss Saturday to host Japan at Yokohama Stadium. With the weight of the nation on them, the hosts won baseball gold for the first time as five Japanese pitchers combined to hold the Americans to six hits. For the U.S., however, a medal of any color offered a mix of redemption and vindication for its resilient roster of free agents, minor leaguers and former All-Stars like Kazmir.
A left-handed pitcher from Houston, Kazmir made two starts for the San Francisco Giants earlier this season and then wound up in Triple-A Sacramento. Because of injuries and family issues, those were his first Major League starts on the mound in five years. The Giants then designated him for assignment and Kazmir accepted his demotion to the minors.
Kazmir has kept at it, much like the U.S. Olympic team. With the U.S. facing relegation to the bronze medal game after a stunning loss in extra innings to Japan in their first tournament meeting, manager Mike Scioscia turned to Kazmir for a knockout game against the Dominican Republic. Kazmir was superb, tossing the first five shutout innings in a tournament-saving, 3-1 win.
“He fell into our lap,” Scioscia said about Kazmir. “I think he got designated for assignment at the right time.”
Thousands of miles away, Giants manager Gabe Kapler was made aware of Kazmir’s accomplishment amid the tumult of a pennant race in the National League West race that has his surprising club leading the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres less than two months before the end of the regular season.
Despite commentators on a Team USA telecast back suggesting another MLB team should sign Kazmir, he’s not a free agent. Fellow USA teammates Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Edwin Jackson, however, still are on the market after this rousing stint in the Olympics.
Could Kazmir be brought back up to help the Giants during the stretch run?
“I called him over there to congratulate him and had a nice conversation,” Kapler said about a now 37-year-old pitcher who was picked by the New York Mets in the first round of the 2002 amateur draft and went on to win 108 games for seven MLB teams. “Sure, he could be part of the equation.”
The conversation at Chase Field in Phoenix then turned to the fact that Major League Baseball doesn’t allow players on the 40-man roster of each club to participate in the Olympics, while the rosters of the Korean and Japanese teams are stocked with players from KBO and Nippon Professional Baseball, the pro leagues in those countries.
Oddly enough, three Americans playing in Japan this season were allowed to participate for Team USA, and Tyler Austin, a former member of the New York Yankees who now plays for Yokohama, was one of Scioscia’s best offensive players, hitting over .400 in the tournament.
“I think that Olympic athletes should be the best athletes in the world,” Kapler said. “And that includes the team sports.”
To be clear, the MLB rule also affects all the Latin American teams. Jose Bautista, now 40 and three seasons removed from the big leagues, was arguably the top player for the Dominicans, which displayed an anemic offense. Adrian Gonzalez, 39 and also three years beyond his MLB career, led Mexico.
The Mexicans along with Israel were eliminated from the six-nation tournament, while the Dominican Republic defeated Korea for the bronze.
All this is why the IOC has decided to shun baseball. After all, it’s the Olympics, not a beer league, and MLB is hardly providing the best players.
It had been 13 years since the last time baseball was an Olympic sport, and it will be another seven years before it may happen again. The Japanese, as the host country with a rich baseball history, sanctioned the sport and women’s softball for these Games. The Japanese women also won the gold, defeating the U.S., which like their baseball counterparts left with a silver.
The French want no part of baseball for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, but the sport could be back in 2028 when the Games are staged in Los Angeles, if the USOPC makes the request. Baseball made its debut as an exhibition sport in 1984, the last time the Olympics were in L.A. The sport was formally sanctioned by the IOC in 1992 and has now concluded its fifth official appearance, including Atlanta in 1996.
The U.S. won gold in 2000 when the late Tommy Lasorda was the manager, and also has two bronze medals and now the sliver to show for it.
Whether the sport appears again in 2028 might depend upon what MLB decides to do about a Games being held in the same time zones where MLB is played. MLB could substitute the 2028 All-Star Game with an abbreviated Olympic tournament, featuring all of its top players during the six-day break.
The big rub, though, is that MLB won’t stop their season during the Olympic years, nor potentially disrupt pennant races by allowing teams to send star players the way Korea and Japan paused their pro seasons this year.
Imagine the Giants losing Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford for two weeks.
“In this season, I’d be pretty upset,” Kapler said. “That’s the point. I don’t think any team would be too comfortable with that.”
The NBA has the luxury of sending the best available since the Summer Olympics transpire during its offseason, although this year created a crush after two seasons compressed and disrupted by the coronavirus as Team USA men’s basketball still defeated France Saturday to win its 16th gold and fourth in a row. The NHL stops the season to send their pro players to the Winter Olympics, but no decision has been made yet whether the league is going to do so again for the upcoming Games in China.
MLB has summarily rejected that approach.
“I don’t have a solution,” Kapler said as a wide-ranging discussion about how to solve the problem ensued. “This is just thinking out loud. The solution I would go with is make it a prospect game. Take the game’s best young players so they could continue their development and get the benefits and the minor league teams wouldn’t be hurt too much.”
That’s happening now in the Futures Game, a minor-league affair two days before the annual All-Star Game. But MLB restricted Team USA’s use of prospects, as some young players who helped during the Americas Qualifying Tournament in June weren’t available this time around. Minor leaguers protected on the 40-man rosters are also off limits.
This year non-40 man minor leaguer Joe Ryan, a pitcher who was traded by Tampa Bay to Minnesota during his time with Team USA, started and pitched well, helping defeat Israel to open the preliminary round and later Korea in the semifinals. The U.S. beat Korea twice, including a convincing 7-2 win in that semifinal game. Triston Casas, a first baseman from the Boston Red Sox organization, crushed three key homers and was a huge lineup presence. Nick Allen, a Triple-A second baseman and No. 3 prospect in the Oakland A’s organization, played solid defense and had three hits in the finale.
Otherwise, the team was a composite of mostly former MLB and minor league retreads. And that brings us back to Kazmir, who topped out at 91 miles per hour in his outing against the DR and seems to have some life in the old arm yet, which might get him another look from the Giants.
“I feel like that was a huge motivation for me,” Kazmir said in Japan after his big win. “It was huge to be able to have my kids watch me play again. I just want to keep it to where they can remember it and know their dad never quit.”
Under all these strange circumstances, the same could be said for the U.S.