BEIJING, China - Olympic baseball, 16, passed away here on Saturday. Alongside its cousin, softball, it is the first Olympic sport to be discontinued since polo in the 1930s -- an inglorious distinction for America's traditional pastime, and another piece of evidence that the sport is failing to keep up with its primary competitors, football and basketball. And yet, to be honest, part of me is happy to see the baseball go.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm as die-hard a fan of this sport as you're likely to find. But at the Olympics, since it became a medal event in 1992, baseball has always been a farce. The best players in the world, bound by their Major League Baseball contracts, never play. Instead, team America serves up a squad of minor leaguers who typically get trounced by the likes of Cuba. This year's team eked out a bronze, but in the past even making it to the podium has proven a challenge (though the United States did snag the gold in Sydney in 2000).
What I'm hoping is that the push to get baseball reinstated in 2016 will result in some fresh ideas about how American baseball can integrate itself around the world. The NFL's new commissioner, Roger Goodell, has staked his reputation on spreading his sport's popularity overseas -- particularly to the massive Chinese market. The NBA has already pulled off the trick. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony -- they're all greeted like rock-stars when they travel abroad (actually, you'd be hard pressed to find a rock-star greeted as exuberantly as Kobe Bryant is). But ask a Chinese person who Chipper Jones is, or Cliff Lee, or Mike Mussina, and you'll get a blank stare.
This isn't by chance. Baseball has committed error after error through ineffectual marketing overseas. To its credit, the sport held an exhibition series in China earlier this year, and the Red Sox and A's played their opening series in Japan. But efforts to build an international television market for baseball have fallen flat, and the idea of attracting a European audience was far-fetched from the start. The lame U.S. presence at the Olympics further undermines the MLB's efforts by making American baseball look insular, aloof, and just plain bad in international competition.
This is a huge missed opportunity. Baseball is actually thriving around the world, at least in terms of skilled participation. The Olympic gold medal game, between South Korea and Cuba, was the sport at its finest. Korea clinched the tightly fought one-run pitchers' duel only after turning a bases-loaded double play in the bottom of the ninth. The fans around me -- not just those with a particular interest in one of the teams playing, but also Europeans and Chinese who just happened to get tickets--wound up getting sucked in by the match-up. Many of the Chinese spectators joined in with groups of Cuban fans to sing "Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Cuba, Cuba."
And yet, very few people in greater Beijing seemed to take notice. Watching China's CCTV -- which is running Olympics coverage 24/7, to a point where they have little to show at times and rely heavily on replays and highlights -- I haven't seen a single showing of the baseball final, or even a highlight reel. The event was relegated to the outskirts of the city, nearly an hour's train ride from downtown, and I was hard-pressed to give away an extra ticket. Every one wanted to go to the track event instead.
My sense is that it wouldn't take much to spur significant improvements in baseball's popularity overseas -- and particularly here in China -- given how much traction it already has in Latin America and Japan and South Korea. If MLB owners want to do this, however, they cannot continue to shield their talent. Basketball, one of the most popular events at this Olympics, thrives partly because people love watching stars like Bryant and James face off against their NBA counterparts from around the world -- Yao Ming of China, and Pau Gasol of Spain, and Manu Ginobili of Argentina.
Baseball could achieve the same thing, to spectacular effect. Imagine Japan's Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Matsui facing off against the Dominican Republic's Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez, with their countries' reputations at stake. Major League Baseball is already remarkably international -- and should jump at the opportunity to sell itself as such. The question is how to convince team owners that it is worth their while to pay attention to the Olympics -- which does, after all, come smack dab in the middle of baseball season in the United States. So far, creative solutions have been few and far between. Maybe the push to get baseball reinstated will help change this.