The 2017 World Baseball Classic kicked off in earnest last week and has already seen its fair share of incredible moments. The Classic - which pits 16 national sides against each other has served as the only major international tournament in baseball since it fell off the Olympic schedule in 2008 - sees traditional powerhouses like the US, Japan, Dominican Republic and Venezuela facing off against less celebrated baseball nations like the Netherlands and Israel.
That is all about to change in 2020 with the inclusion of baseball in the Tokyo Olympics. However, far from the pinnacle of the sport, Olympic baseball will fall in the middle of the MLB season and it is unlikely to feature any Major League Baseball players.
MLB is the most celebrated tournament in baseball – a $10 billion industry with a worldwide player base, some of whom take incredible risks to be able to play. An Olympics without Major Leaguers will feel empty and incomplete – just as the U23 format of Olympic football means that it doesn’t really compare to the FIFA World Cup for fans or players.
The 2017 World Baseball Classic edition is the most star studded edition yet, with former Major League Baseball MVP winners Buster Posey, Miguel Cabrera and a host of other stars battling it out for their countries. These players have been released by their MLB clubs because they are only missing Spring Training (pre-season) and because MLB part-own the tournament. However, even with MLB as a major stakeholder in the tournament there is a lengthy list of absentees, headlined by Mike Trout and Kris Bryant, the two MVP winners last year.
If baseball can’t attract the best in the world for a national tournament that its biggest league has a vested interest in, then the odds of every country playing at full strength for the 2020 Olympics, in the middle of a 162 game MLB season, are very slim.
As much Olympic baseball needs its own version of the 1992 Dream Team it is unlikely without some major sacrifices from MLB and its players. MLB clubs pay their stars hundreds of millions of dollars – what incentive do they have to release them in the midst of a playoff race? In Beijing 2008 the USA took Bronze with a team of minor league and college players – and no country featured a MLB player.
An Olympics without the biggest MLB stars wouldn’t just impact Team USA – every major nation bar Cuba (for various reasons) would be prevented from calling up some of their best players – diluting the product on the field in the biggest showcase sport has to offer, but at the same time maybe levelling the playing field (of the over 800 players on Major League rosters only around 25% are born outside the US).
Baseball needs MLB to let it stars travel to Tokyo but the stakes for the league and clubs are too high to let this happen. Until a comprise is reached we’ll just have to sit back and watch the World Baseball Classic and imagine what an opportunity Tokyo 2020 could be for the sport.
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