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Without U.S., Olympic baseball in trouble

The world-renowned Greek baseball team will compete at next summer's Olympics.

So will the Italian team. And the Dutch team. And the Taiwanese team. Even the South African team may play in Athens next August.

But the United States team will not. Such international baseball superstars as Guo-Gang Yang, Claudio Liverziani and Patrick de Lange may earn Olympic medals next summer, but Roger Clemens will not have that chance. Three years after winning the gold medal in Sydney, the U.S. team lost to Mexico -- yes, Mexico -- in last week's Americas qualifying tournament and so, the country that invented baseball has been taken out of the ballgame in Athens. For the first time since the sport became part of the Olympics in 1984, the U.S. will not be represented in baseball at the Games.

Playing baseball at the Olympics without the U.S.? That's like holding the World Cup without hooligans. The next thing you know, they'll ban anorexia from Olympics gymnastics.

Last weekend's loss is the most embarrassing moment for U.S. baseball since Roseanne mangled the "Star-Spangled Banner." Far worse, it also might spell the end of baseball in the Olympics.

Baseball's very status as an Olympic sport was already in jeopardy. I don't know why the International Olympic Committee cares about baseball ratings when it obviously doesn't care about ratings for synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics or race-walking, but the important thing is that it does. The IOC either wants major leaguers in the Olympics or baseball out of the Olympics entirely.

We weren't going to see major leaguers in Athens next summer. But Clemens likely would have pitched, bringing a much-needed spotlight to Olympic baseball. That won't happen now. And because it won't, NBC's cameras won't be within a tape measure home run of the Olympic baseball stadium, either. There's a better chance NBC will show you the Fox Sports logo during the Olympics next summer than the Italian baseball team.

Sandy Alderson lobbied hard last year to maintain baseball's spot on the schedule for the 2008 Olympics. Thanks to the U.S. failure last week, he and others will have to lobby harder than the NRA to keep it there.

As embarrassing as last week's loss was -- remember, that wasn't Fernando Valenzuela or Teddy Higuera pitching for Mexico, and someone please explain manager Frank Robinson's strategy when he burned his best hitter, Twins prospect Joe Mauer, to lay down a pinch-hit sacrifice bunt in the final inning -- the players aren't the only ones responsible for the U.S. not qualifying to compete next year. The entire Olympics baseball qualifying system is a disaster.

First, there are too many European baseball teams in the Olympics. Greece gets an automatic berth as the host country next summer, which is good and reasonable, even though so few people play the game there that the team will be American citizens of Greek descent. But why does Europe get two additional teams, giving them three of the eight teams in the Olympics? Why does Europe, where baseball still is a cult sport, wind up with more teams than North and Central America, where baseball is king?

Giving Europe three baseball teams in the Olympics is like giving Steven Seagal three tickets to the Academy Awards.

This needs to be changed. Until European baseball improves, it should be limited to one at-large team (plus a host team when warranted). That would allow additional and far more deserving teams from the Americas or Asia (Korea, which won the bronze in 2000, won't be in Athens, either) to compete.

Secondly, the structure of the Americas qualifying tournament must change dramatically. The one held last week was a bigger mess than Nick Nolte's hair.

Why does Australia have to beat only Guam and South Africa in the Oceania Games to reach the Olympics when the U.S. had to reach the final game against what began as a 13-team field that included Cuba, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic?

The Dominican Republic and Venezuela, of course, didn't actually play in the tournament, dropping out ahead of time along with Aruba and the Bahamas. That's how Mexico was even in position to play the U.S. last week despite going 0-3 in the first round. Because so many teams dropped out before the tournament started -- and because the Bahamas team didn't even bother calling in to explain their absence -- no team was eliminated from Mexico's pool.

While we consider the validity of an Americas tournament where the Dominican Republic didn't even play, let us also consider this: The teams that did show up played three games apiece in the first round to eliminate exactly one team, then immediately went into a single-elimination round that eliminated six teams. If all the teams in Mexico's pool advanced regardless of their record in the first round, why did they play it?

The tournament should have been double-elimination, with the U.S. and Cuba seeded first and second as the defending Olympic and World Cup champs.

Next, why does the U.S. leave its very Olympic eligibility to minor league prospects and major league failures? The U.S. barely qualified for the 2000 Games in Sydney, which should have been a wakeup call that the qualifying round is too important to leave to the likes of Ernie Young.

I'm not saying the major leagues need to shut down during the Olympics the way the NHL does. But the least baseball can do is change the ridiculous rule prohibiting major leaguers on 25-man rosters from the qualifying tournaments. If Japan can send the best players from its major leagues to the Asian qualifying games, other countries should be able to send their best players from our major leagues as well.

Certainly, many big leaguers would have been too tired from a long season to play in Panama. But many also would have welcomed the chance to represent their countries and help them qualify for the Olympics.

Finally, the previous gold medal winner should earn an automatic berth into the next Olympics. If the goal of the Olympics is to bring together the best athletes possible in a sport, why provide the chance for one of the best teams to be knocked out before the competition even starts?

The most unfortunate part of such changes is not that it's too late to make them for the U.S. to compete in Athens next summer. It's that they might also be made too late for any country to play baseball at the Olympics after next summer.

Boxscore line of the week
While the U.S. and other teams from the Americas were trying to qualify for the Olympics in Panama, eight countries were playing for two Olympics spots in Sapporo, Japan. Among those, interestingly, was Pakistan. Yes, Pakistan.

Utilizing their cricket background, the Pakistanis could hit a little -- they scored 11 runs against Indonesia -- but they couldn't pitch at all. Pakistan allowed 36 runs in three games, including 31 in two games that ended after seven and eight innings due to the tournament's mercy rule. China beat Pakistan 19-0, scoring 15 runs in the final two innings, 11 against the country's hapless bullpen of Asjid Mehmood, Muhammad Umer Islam and Saleem-Haider.

And you thought the Rangers had bullpen trouble. The Pakistani combined bullpen line from the tournament:

7 IP, 11 H, 19 R, 13 ER, 6 BB, 2 K, 4 HBP

Pakistan wasn't the best fielding team, either, occasionally celebrating a cleanly caught ball by jumping up and down as if they were Little Leaguers.

But they did win one game, beating Indonesia 11-5. And when they did, they dropped to their knees and prayed to Allah in thanksgiving.

There was a lot of bad news out of the Olympic qualifiers last week, but that last item explains why it's important to keep baseball in the Olympics. It builds the game around the globe from even the humblest of beginnings.

Lies, damn lies and statistics
The most painful part of the U.S. loss may be that the Americans allowed only two runs the entire tournament and still didn't qualify for the Olympics. The most embarrassing part of Friday's game, however, may not have been the final score for the U.S. The attendance was also pathetic -- just 250 fans. Which is still 100 more fans than showed up for the U.S. opener against Nicaragua and 150 more than the crowd at the U.S.-Colombia game. Just who the hell was in charge of running this thing, anyway? "This is the most disorganized thing I've ever seen," Frank Robinson told MLB.com days before the U.S. loss. ... It should be noted that the combined payrolls of the past three world champions -- Florida ($54 million), Anaheim ($62 million) and Arizona ($81 million) -- were barely higher than the Yankees payroll this season ($180 million). ... After all the controversy over whether a veteran Japanese player should be eligible for the Rookie of the Year award, Hideki Matsui didn't win the honor. And now there are reports that shortstop Kazuo Matsui may not sign with a major league team this winter.

From left field
As disappointing as the U.S loss is, it's important to remember that while baseball is our national pastime, it isn't our game. It's the world's game and every year teams from around the world get better and better. We all know about the U.S. Olympians who played in the majors -- Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi, Will Clark, Tino Martinez, etc. -- but here is a partial list of Olympian major leaguers from other countries, a list that hopefully will grow and grow:

Note: Cuba left its best pitcher, Orlando Hernandez, off the 1996 Olympic team out of fear he would defect in Atlanta. Hernandez fled the country anyway two years later.

Win Blake Stein's Money
This week's category is: And You Wonder Why He Had The Red Ass All The Time When He Was A Player?

Question: Who won a Rookie of the Year award five years after his first major league at-bat and with his fifth major league organization?

Answer: Lou Piniella was drafted by Cleveland in 1962, then was picked by the Washington Senators in the 1962 Rule V draft, then was traded to Baltimore, where he made his major league debut in 1964. He played four games with the Orioles before being traded to Cleveland in 1966 and returning to the majors for five at-bats in 1968. The Seattle Pilots picked him in the expansion draft after the season, then traded him to the Royals in spring training. After having been on the disabled list once, the military service list twice, the temporary inactive list twice and being suspended once, Sweet Lou hit .282 with 11 home runs and 68 RBI in 1969 to earn Rookie of the Year honors at age 26.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.