TORONTO -- The United States might have lost the Pan Am Games gold medal to Canada in painful and chaotic fashion Sunday night, but it does bring up the ongoing question as to whether the U.S. and other countries will ever get to play for an Olympic gold medal again. Right now, at least, it's looking rather promising for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
"I was privileged to play a couple years over in Japan," U.S. manager Jim Tracy said, "and for Olympic baseball to show back up in Japan? Trust me, it's beyond love the way they feel about baseball there. Taking baseball over to Japan and making it an Olympic sport again would be unbelievable. It should be done, but I don't have a vote."
Baseball and softball were dropped from the Olympics after the 2008 Games in Beijing, and they will not be in Rio de Janeiro next year. But a recent IOC change allows the host city to propose adding a sport to the Olympic program. Baseball and softball are a combined bid with seven other sports, including bowling, squash, surfing and billiards. Further presentations will be made for each sport in August, and the IOC will make a decision next June.
You never know with the IOC, but given Japan's passion for baseball, it would make sense for the sport to win.
"Influence is a relative term, but the host city and country has some influence relative to sports that are germane or a part of their culture, their DNA," said Paul Seiler, the executive director for USA Baseball. "Obviously, that gives us some level of hope knowing that baseball and softball are very important sports to the Japanese people."
Kim Ng, who oversees Major League Baseball's international interests as the league's senior vice president for baseball operations, says she is hopeful for baseball in Tokyo, as well.
" It's important for the sport and the development," she said. "We're doing what we can on this side to make it happen. We're optimistic, but cautiously optimistic."
Cost is a major concern for baseball as an Olympic sport because building a baseball stadium isn't cheap, especially if the ballpark won't be used much again, as was the case in Barcelona (1992) and Athens (2004). That won't be an issue in Japan, where there are many baseball stadiums, or in Boston if that city wins its bid for the 2024 Olympics.
"Does that help in the decision-making process?" Seiler said. "We don't know if it does, but you hope from the outside looking in, those are things that go in the positive bucket for what sport makes sense. And from the Japanese side, you would think they would want to add sports they have a chance to medal in, as well.
"From our side, as we look at it -- granted, it's not our decision -- but when you look at positives for us, these are all things we're hopeful are part of the discussion and process."
Ng said that being part of the Olympics also would return funding for baseball to some countries. "Funding disappeared [after 2008]. That would be a tremendous outcome to get it back on that global stage."
Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, who still cherishes his participation with the U.S. team at the 1996 Olympics, says baseball deserves to be back in the Games -- not only because the game already is played in North America, Latin America and Asia, as well as growing in Europe, but also because baseball is simply a great sport for the global stage.
"If you want to get the greatest athletes in the world together, why not baseball?" the Toronto Blue Jays starter said. "I don't think there is a sport where hand-to-eye coordination is more important and more difficult."
A major issue for baseball is that the Summer Olympics are played, obviously, during the middle of the major league season. Although the NHL takes a break to allow players to compete in the Winter Olympics (something team owners would like to stop) and Japan took a break in its major league baseball season for the 2008 Olympics, such a thing is very unlikely for Major League Baseball.
"I think it's all about the timing," Tracy said. "The tough part is it's in the summer when you're involved in a major league season. It would be a very difficult thing to do to pull major league players away from a pennant race. That's the only hard part. If that wasn't the case, you would have players putting their hands up."
Dickey agrees and says the solution is to go old school and make baseball an amateur sport at the Olympics, like when he played in 1996 and the U.S. roster was filled with collegiate and recently drafted players.
"You still would be talking about guys who are going to be some of the best players in the country," Dickey said. "They don't have the seasoning, but you would still get young guys who are like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg [who was on the 2008 Olympic team] and could be great players."
Just as important, Dickey says, many players on the U.S. team would be teammates for several summers leading into the Olympics. Unlike the World Baseball Classic, where national teams might not practice together until a few days before the tournament starts, an amateur U.S. team could train and play together for several summers. That builds team chemistry, cohesion and friendship.
"Also, it gives those guys the Olympic experience," Dickey said. "Not all those guys get to play in the major leagues. But you get that, you get the Olympics.
"You're still somewhat impressionable, and that makes an indelible mark in your life story."