MINNEAPOLIS -- If the quality of play in Olympic baseball competition was consistently more suited to a beer league than to Beijing, if the value of an entire sport depended solely on the names in that day's lineup, if someone was trying to pass off the worst-of-the-worst as the best-of-the-best, then dropping baseball beginning with the 2012 London Games might make some sense.I say forget about Olympic Baseball, and make Olympic Wushu a reality!
But Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire doesn't buy that as a reason the International Olympic Committee might have for eliminating his favorite sport.
"Why is that their concern? What does that have to do with it?'' Gardenhire asked before his team's game against the Oakland Athletics at the Metrodome. "Olympics are about competing against each other and the joy of sports. It's about countries getting away from everything else. Why does it have to be `the best?' I liked it when it was all college kids. I liked all sports when they were college kids. The best moment we've had, with our hockey team: College kids. They beat the Russians [at Lake Placid in 1980]. To me, to say that, that's a weak excuse.''
A Miracle On Ice trumps a Dream Team, as far as Gardenhire is concerned. He admits, however, that he is biased toward baseball as an international sport. He manages a team with five players on the active roster who have participated on national teams. The Twins organization sent 15 players to the World Baseball Classic in 2006, and Gardenhire, who has a German birth certificate, occasionally jokes about coaching Deutscheland in international competition.
"What's sad is, as it's gaining as a world game, we're taking baseball out,'' Gardenhire said. "A lot of countries are picking baseball up and playing. We've got our people going around the world and teaching and helping them start programs. So now when it's finally growing and being accepted by other countries, it's being shut down.''
The IOC, in voting in 2005 to drop baseball and softball after the Beijing Games, also cited the costs of constructing ballparks at Olympic sites and the limited interest in the sports in Europe, Africa and other nations. The topic is scheduled to be revisited in fall 2009, with an eye on the 2016 Games.
"I really find it hard to believe that we can't have baseball but we can have BMX bicycle riding,'' said Twins shortstop Adam Everett, a member of the U.S. squad that took gold at the 2000 Games in Sydney. "Especially going to the Olympics, winning a gold medal and seeing that the stadium was full, I mean, in Australia. That was every game we played, and they're not known that well for baseball.
"It's disappointing. It's America's pastime, but you look and it's becoming global, with Japan and China. The Latin countries, that's their main sport. We've got the World Baseball Classic and that's similar to the Olympics -- but it's not the Olympics. You're talking about representing your country with all the other athletes, and wearing red, white and blue, and maybe getting a chance to win a medal? That's cool, and for people to not have that opportunity, that kind of stinks.''
Everett and his teammates captured gold thanks to Milwaukee pitcher Ben Sheets' three-hit shutout of Cuba. Three years later, current Twins Joe Mauer, Jesse Crain and Mike Lamb were among the U.S. group that failed to qualify in Panama for the 2004 Athens Games. Justin Morneau, the 2006 American League MVP, played for Canada's national teams in 2001 qualifying and in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Now, they all click on the Beijing blog of Twins farmhand Brian Duensing, on loan to Team USA from Rochester (AAA).
"Baseball is one of the most popular sports in the world -- on our side of the ocean, at least,'' said Crain, who pitched for Morneau's Canadian team in '06 (he was born in Toronto in 1981 while his American parents were there for business). "From what it sounds like, it just doesn't seem like it's that popular in London and London is where the next Olympics is, right? Any time you play a sport, you wish it was recognized at the Olympics. But there's not much we can do about it, other than promote it and try to get it back in there for 2016.''
Sending major league players, somehow, some way, would give the IOC the glamour and gate attractions it might crave to reinstate baseball as an official event.