Baseball’s days as an Olympic sport appeared to be over when it was dropped after the 2008 Games in Beijing. But host countries now have a say in what’s included beyond the permanent sports, and baseball is big in Japan. So it’s back on the program for the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
It looks like a short-lived return, though: organizers of the Paris 2024 Olympics left baseball off their list of sports they want to add. They’d rather have surfing, climbing, skateboarding and breakdancing. The International Olympic Committee will make the final call late next year, but it doesn’t look good.
That adds urgency to the Canadian national team’s quest to qualify for the Olympics for the third straight time and take another shot at winning its first medal. It’s going to be tougher this time, though. The tournament was cut from eight teams to six, and Canada is currently ranked 10th in the world. Plus, two spots are already filled: No. 1-ranked Japan is already in as the host country, and Israel will represent the Africa/Europe region after winning its qualifying tournament.
Not to get too cute, but Canada faced a three-strikes-and-you’re-out situation. And it’s now down to its final two strikes.
Strike 1: The WBSC Premier 12 tournament
The WBSC is the international governing body for baseball and softball. The Premier 12 is a tournament for — you guessed it — the top 12 countries in the world. It’s happening right now. While it’s meant to stand on its own — there’s a $5.2-million US prize pool and the winning team gets $1.5 million — this year’s event is also acting as an Olympic qualifier. It will decide two of the remaining four spots.
Canada was eligible for one of them, but it was eliminated in the first round of the tournament after going 1-2 in its group. The group also included South Korea (ranked No. 3 in the world), Cuba (No. 5) and Australia (No. 7). Only the top two teams in each group advance, and Canada placed third when group play ended on Friday. South Korea and Australia moved on.
In order to have won an Olympic spot, Canada needed to finish as the top team from the Americas region in this tournament. Mexico and the United States advanced from their group, ensuring Canada will not be the top Americas team.
The other Olympic spot available at this tournament is for the top finisher from the Asia/Oceania region — excluding Japan, which is already in as the Olympic host.
Strike 2: The Americas qualifying tournament
This takes place in March. Eight teams will be there, and one of the two remaining Olympic spots is available. All seven Americas teams currently playing in the Premier 12 have an automatic entry in this tournament. But of course the top finisher at the Premier 12 doesn’t have to play in this because it will have already clinched an Olympic spot.
The winner of this tournament is in the Olympics. The second- and third-place teams get one last shot.
Strike 3: The final world qualifying tournament
Six teams will fight for the final Olympic spot at this last-chance event in early 2020. Only the winner gets in.
Based on the results of various regional qualifiers, we already know two of the teams will be China and the Netherlands. Another will be either South Korea or Taiwan — whichever doesn’t qualify via the Premier 12. The field rounds out with the winner of next year’s Oceania qualifier plus, as mentioned, the second- and third-place teams from the Americas qualifier.
Other stuff to know
One of the issues with Olympic baseball is that it happens during the Major League Baseball season and MLB doesn’t pause to let the best players go. That’s part of the reason why Cuba is the best country in the history of Olympic baseball (it’s won three of the five gold medals, plus two silver). The Communist regime doesn’t allow people to leave the country. So, with the exception of defectors, most of its best baseball players compete in Cuba’s domestic league, which doesn’t overlap with the Olympics. It’s similar to how the Soviet Union dominated Olympic hockey in the Iron Curtain era, before the NHL allowed its players to participate.
That being said, you might recognize some former major leaguers on Team Canada. In its only win of the Premier 12 event, over Cuba, ex-Phillies pitcher Phillippe Aumont threw eight shutout innings. Ex-Blue Jay Michael Saunders, who put off retirement to play for the national team, drove in one of the runs. Pitcher Scott Richmond and outfielder Dalton Pompey have also played for the Jays — the latter as recently as 2018. And the manager will be familiar to fans of the ’80s Jays: Ernie Whitt.
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