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Taking cues from soccer could help baseball reach goal

by Jason Coskrey

Judging by popular opinion, many seem to think convincing MLB to commit to sending its top players to the Olympics is the key to getting the sport back into the program in the future, preferably in time for the 2020 Games.

Well, that’s not likely to happen. Considering that, it may be beneficial for baseball’s leaders to start taking a few pointers from FIFA instead of relying on manpower from the majors.

Men’s soccer is doing just fine despite the combination of an age limit — all but three players per team must be under 23 — and clubs not wanting to release players, robbing the Olympics of some of the sport’s most recognizable names.

Then again, the Olympics, though a major event, isn’t the ultimate goal for many of soccer’s best, who would probably just as soon return home holding the World Cup as opposed to with Olympic gold around their necks.

Baseball already has its World Cup, the World Baseball Classic, and maybe the key to spurring the sort of international growth the International Olympic Committee loves to tout is to start putting the WBC on a pedestal, as is the case with the World Cup.

To be clear, baseball doesn’t have nearly global cache soccer boasts. Even so, the sport has grown by leaps and bounds since 2005, when it, along with softball, was voted out of the Olympic program. The evidence isn’t hard to find either. China’s growth was easy to see during the 2013 WBC, Brazil and Italy turned heads with their performances, and the Netherlands made it all the way to the semifinals.

“The new picture of baseball is just a little different than 10 years ago, International Baseball Federation president Riccardo Fraccari said in response to a question about MLB participation during a news conference on Sunday. “It’s more globalized. The results of the Classic showed that. I think the picture of the new baseball is big and worldwide.”

Still, globalization can be a double-edged sword if Major League Baseball refuses to send players. Because as stars emerge from across the globe, the cream of the crop, and many in the tier below that, will inevitably find their way to the majors.

A lack of top MLB talent in that case would have an adverse affect on multiple rosters instead of solely on those of the U.S. and Canada. Something similar happened during the 2013 WBC, when a number of MLB stars were absent from Asian rosters.

Also, no matter how much support MLB pledges, there is little to suggest the league will ever part with its players during the middle of the season in July and August.

“You can’t stop baseball for three weeks,” Joe Torre, an MLB executive vice president, was quoted as saying by AP in Las Vegas earlier this month. “I know they do it in hockey, but we really can’t do it. There’s a rhythm to our game.”

That’s from someone who wants the game in the Olympics.

There is no easy answer for the newly formed World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC), but if MLB won’t stop its season, WBSC could follow soccer’s lead and institute an age limit.

For one, that would lessen the number of eligible major leaguers, and level the playing field a bit, giving nations without much baseball tradition more motivation to invest in the sport. It could also be easier to convince MLB clubs to send some of their top prospects, who increasingly hail from different parts of the globe, to compete.

Giving a group of rising stars the Olympic stage could also solidify the importance of the WBC, which already features MLB players and, like the World Cup, should be held up as the pinnacle of the sport.

Besides, it would seem to be in baseball’s best interest to have the top players in the world as the center of attention at the WBC, rather than serving as just one small piece of the spectacle that is the Olympics.

The WBSC is taking steps toward its goal and vows to do whatever it takes to get back into the Olympic program. It said it will “swing for the fences,” but the game might be best served by forgetting about MLB pitchers and taking a few cues from the boys on the pitch.