Olympics open without baseball
* Jeremy Ware (26) watches Adam Stern catch a fly ball at the Olympic Games in Athens as Canada lost to Japan in the bronze medal game./Photo: Andre Forget ….
By Melissa Couto
Athens heard the sounds – the umpires’ calls, the cheers from the crowd.
Beijing saw the sights – the excitement on the players’ faces, the Canadian flag waving in the stands.
But London will have none of it.
In 2005, the IOC elected to strike baseball from the Olympic program following the 2008 Games in Beijing. For those involved with the sport in Canada, this decision has been disappointing to say the least.
For one thing, this very well could have been Canada’s time to shine.
“I would think we would have had a good chance [to medal in 2012] based on the results of the past couple years,” said Jim Baba, Director of Baseball Canada via phone from his office in Ottawa.
“Being bronze medallists in the 2009 Baseball World Cup, bronze medallists in the 2011 Baseball World Cup, and this past year winning gold at the Pan-Am Games has got to bode well for how our program is developing.
“I would have hoped that we could have come close [this year]… but baseball’s a very tough sport to predict.”
Members of the last two Canadian Olympic baseball teams can attest to the unpredictable nature of the sport. After all, they’ve experienced it firsthand.
Ghosts of Olympics Past
On a shaded patch of grass along the third baseline of Guelph’s Hastings Stadium sat Jeremy Ware.
Winded from batting practice and glistening with sweat from the sizzling Southern Ontario summer sun, he spoke of Team Canada’s lamentable loss to Cuba in the semifinals at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
“We were ahead until the eighth,” said the Guelph Royals outfielder, recalling details of Cuba’s 8-5 victory. “Baseball’s so tough. There’s 27 outs and until that last out, it’s not over.
“It was awful. Your dreams were in your grasp, but what can you do?”
Cuba won gold at the Games while Canada finished fourth, losing to Japan in a bronze medal match that took place less than 24 hours after the loss to Cuba.
“We had to play early the next day,” Ware explained. “Japan is one of the powerhouses on the baseball stage and after a tough loss you have to recharge the battery and refocus but we couldn’t and we got whooped again. It was heartbreaking.”
Ware’s teammate from the 2004 Games, Adam Stern, echoed this sentiment.
“Getting bumped by Cuba was really deflating,” Stern said from his home in London, Ont. “We had the game in the bag … It was like someone ripped your heart out — that’s how tough that loss was.”
Travel schedules and rules established by the players’ MLB organizations made the loss even more difficult to handle.
“It was awful, not only because we came in fourth, but because all of us were on loan to the national team and we had to get back to the US and Canada as fast as possible,” Ware said. “I would have liked to stay and taken in the closing ceremonies and have some free time.”
Despite this, however, the 36-year-old maintains that going to Athens and playing on Team Canada was one of the most memorable experiences of his life.
And he knew it the moment he got there.
“Being in Athens, the birthplace of the Olympic Games,” the Orangeville native said of what made the event so special. “Taking part in the opening ceremonies, knowing four million people are watching world wide.
“You walk in and see the greatest athletes on the planet. You see Yao Ming, you see the Dream Team. I got to talk to Tim Duncan, Jen Taurasi. I talked to Martina Navratilova.
“You go to the mess hall to eat and there are just specimen athletes everywhere and it’s like, wow! You’re in awe.”
And then there was the camaraderie between teammates — a bond initially formed by nationality but cemented by three weeks of shared international experience.
“As the tournament came about we started to get our strides together,” Ware said. “We’d get [on the field] and do a little stretch, a little dance, we’re out there horsing around playing Duck, Duck, Goose.
“We were always doing something crazy. No one really talked to the ball players because we’re kind of from another planet.”
Drafted by the Expos in 1994, Ware had been out of the minor league system for two years by the time the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games were underway. Though he didn’t partake, his teammate from Athens did.
Today, Adam Stern owns and manages Centrefield Sports, a 20,000 square foot, professionally turfed, multipurpose venue in his hometown. Four years ago however, he was venturing 10,000 kilometres away with a Canadian Olympic jersey on his back for the second time in his career.
“It was a whole new experience,” the London native said of his second Olympic Games. “Obviously Athens was special because of the history around it, and your first one is always special, but Beijing did it a lot bigger. They spent more money so it was different.”
The disparity didn’t stop at spending. Unlike in Athens, Canada did not make it past the round robin stage of the tournament in Beijing, finishing with a 2-5 record.
“I thought 2008 was kind of a disappointment,” the 32-year-old said. “There were a lot of one-run games and we were on the wrong side of things. Our team was very good. It was lined up perfectly … It happened that it didn’t come together for us.”
Like Ware, Stern remembers these experiences fondly, regardless of win-loss record, and though he played for Canada in both World Baseball Classics, and made it to the big leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 2005, the Olympic Games ranks high on his long list of accomplishments.
“I always grew up watching the Olympics on TV,” Stern recalled. “You know, there’s a lot of guys who have played in the big leagues but not every big leaguer has played in the Olympics and that’s a pretty special thing. You can say you got to represent your country at the Olympics; not everybody can say that.
“I had a pretty good experience in [the WBC in] ‘06 when we beat the US,” he continued, contrasting the two international events. “That was an amazing win, but it’s the mystique of the Olympics that always takes you back — it’s the opening ceremonies, it’s the hanging out with the guys for three weeks.
“The WBC is special because if you can represent your country there, you’re one of the best players in your country… but the Olympics is special because of everything that goes with the Olympics.”
Ghosts of Olympics Future
Young Canadian ball players will have to wait until 2020 to possibly replicate the experiences of Ware and Stern as the IOC has already rejected baseball’s re-entry for 2016.
Ryan Kellogg, the Blue Jays’ 12th round pick in this year’s amateur draft, is among those waiting.
“Baseball was my favourite part of the summer Olympics,” the 18-year-old said. “It was great to see all the different countries and the different styles of play that each country had. These teams want to win so badly, not for themselves, but for their country.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing in the big leagues, but the Olympics was also something that interested me,” he continued. “I wanted to accomplish both.”
For Jim Baba, this is one of the most discouraging aspects of the IOC’s decision.
“Young players like Ryan … certainly would have been given the chance [to represent Canada at the Olympics] down the road in 2016,” Baba said. “players like that strive to be in the major leagues and that’s great, but it’s a secondary thing to be in the Olympic Games and that’s great too.
“Now we do have the Pan-Am Games that they can take part in … It doesn’t give the Olympic flare but it’s the best thing we can offer at the international level.”
Kellogg will be taking his talents to Arizona State University this fall, but as someone who has donned the maple leaf on his breast in worldwide tournaments with the junior national team, including the Worlds in South Korea later this month, he still hopes for the chance to compete at the Olympic level.
“Hopefully baseball will be reintroduced into the Olympics and I’ll be lucky enough to be given that opportunity in the future,” the Whitby native said. “It’s something I would really like to do, so potentially missing out on this is very disappointing.”
The International Baseball Federation [IBAF] will be presenting their case for the 2020 Olympic Games next year. According to Baba, who also serves as Chairman of IBAF’s Tournament Commission, this won’t be an easy task.
“We’ll be fighting with six other sports to be in the Olympics and only one is going to be selected,” he said.
All we can do now is wait.