RIO DE JANEIRO -- The best baseball news this past week -- outside of the Yankees basically abandoning their postseason chances, of course -- was Wednesday's long expected announcement that the sport will return to the Olympics in 2020.
There will be only six teams in those Olympics, which isn't great, but at least they will be played in Tokyo, which is very good. Japan is passionate about baseball, making those Olympics a much better location for the sport's return than when the IOC decided to bring back golf beginning with the Games in Rio, where the sport is not widely played and an expensive new course had to be built, adding to financial woes.
Which brings up an important issue. While baseball is returning for the 2020 Olympics, there is no guarantee it will continue in the 2024 Games because the host city could replace it with another sport. If the 2024 Olympics are awarded to Los Angeles, it's a good bet baseball will be there. But if one of the other three candidates -- Paris, Rome and Budapest -- get the Games, then it becomes less likely.
One reason is the cost of constructing baseball and softball stadiums in cities where the sports are not played very much. That is one of the reasons the IOC dropped the two sports after the 2008 Olympics. Many host cities simply would never use those ballparks again, though the 1992 Olympic baseball stadium was still being used in Barcelona when I visited there a couple of years ago.
Another reason is that the IOC wants baseball to send its very best major leaguers, as do most other sports, such as basketball. That, however, is not easy for baseball since the Summer Olympics, unlike the NBA season, come smack in the middle of the major league season. Hockey interrupts its season for the Olympics (which the players love, but the NHL team owners don't) as does the WNBA. Japan's baseball league did the same thing in 2008. But don't expect the major leagues to do so when so much is at stake, particularly money. That limits many countries from sending their best players.
Of course, not sending the best players isn't considered a major issue in men's soccer where age rules greatly reduce the number of top stars from competing. But the IOC doesn't seem to care about that because soccer is so globally popular.
The IOC needs to get over that. Baseball is an international sport. There are current major leaguers from all across the globe, including Japan, Australia, Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, South Korea and Germany as well as America. Heck, there was a player from Lithuania in the Futures Game last month. Aside from Antarctica, Africa is the only continent without a major leaguer, though there are rising prospects from there who might crack the majors soon.
Baseball also is much more popular than most events at the Olympics. Does anyone really care about the modern pentathlon? Or sailing? Or trampoline?
As former Olympian R.A. Dickey told me last year: "If you want to get the greatest athletes in the world together, why not baseball?"
Even without major leaguers, baseball has sent top prospects to the Olympics. Among them have been Jake Arrieta (2008), Stephen Strasburg (2008), Dickey (1996) and Nomar Garciaparra (1992), plus Tino Martinez (1988), Jim Abbott (1988), Barry Larkin (1984), Mark McGwire (1984) and Will Clark (1984) when it was a demonstration sport. And that's just the U.S. teams.
The problem is that those players were generally just prospects and so not very well-known at the time, especially not outside America. How then can the majors get bigger names into the Olympics?
One possibility is sending a few recently retired players to the Olympics. They clearly will not be at their peak but they definitely will attract attention and ratings. Imagine the passion if Ichiro is playing for Japan in Tokyo -- if he actually retires by then, since he will be only 46 and has said he doesn't plan to retire until age 50.
Another move is for baseball to establish the Olympic team early and then heavily publicize it. Make it clear to fans who the players are and that they are likely to become All-Stars. Have them play exhibitions against major league teams in the leadup to the Olympics. That will give them attention and great experience.
Whoever goes, baseball should stay in the Olympics beyond 2020. It is one of the biggest sports in the world and it certainly deserves to be in the Olympics every bit as much as synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics.