Team USA celebrates after the medal ceremony at the Baseball Stadium in Olympic Park during the Sydney Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia on September 27, 2000. The USA defeated Cuba 4-0 to win the gold medal. Cuba took silver. (Photo by Jamie Squire /Getty Images)
By Mike Tierney, Special to Universal Sports
America’s beloved bat,/ball/ glove sports have had their share of red-letter days. July 8, 2005 was a red-faced one, filled with embarrassment and anger for its proponents of global competition.
On that date, the International Olympic Committee voted baseball and softball off the island.
It is not uncommon for the IOC to ax certain disciplines within sports. In track and field alone, 60-meter and 5-mile races have come and gone, along with the standing long and triple jump.
In fact, the committee reviews the entire program every four years and conducts a line-item yea or nay to retain each offering.
But the ouster of baseball and softball, effective at the upcoming London Games, marked the first elimination of an entire sport since the ’36 Olympics.
Both camps were disappointed upon hearing what a manager arguing with an umpire is told: “Yer outta here!” Only one was unexpected.
Baseball had become vulnerable, and much of the blame fell on the United States. Its Olympic teams were devoid of active A-listers, Major League Baseball understandably unwilling to cut loose two-dozen standouts for a month in the midst of their season — or, as other sports leagues have done, hit the pause button during the Games.
The IOC frowns on a country sending its second string. As evidence, U.S. basketball’s conversion from collegians to professional all-stars, labeled the Dream Team, was embraced by Olympics bigwigs.
Another turn-off for them was MLB’s drug-testing procedures. While it might be considered stringent in the context of pro leagues, the policy is lenient for those under IOC jurisdiction. Hamstringing MLB is an inability to toughen its testing without the players union signing off.
The IOC also likes to see the medals wealth spread around. Cuba, a nation that reveres baseball, did fetch three gold and two silver medals in the five Olympiads that accommodated baseball. But it did not monopolize the field. South Korea claimed one gold, as did the U.S., which also took a pair of bronze medals.
Doping issues in the U.S. “probably cost the sport dearly,” IOC member John Coates of Australia said after the vote. Carlos Rodriguez, chief of the Cuban baseball federation, said “Those who bear most of the blame are the owners of the professional leagues who refuse to free up their players.”
Baseball’s primary cheerleader vented on behalf of the sport. “They’re making a big mistake,” former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who coached the golden group from the U.S. in 2000, said after the IOC benched the object of his passion.
“All the countries around the world are beginning to play baseball. Why would they want to take baseball out?”
Baseball’s worldwide popularity, decent though not explosive, is reflected in its 118 international federations, which measures the amount of countries with sufficient involvement and organization in the sport.
Softball had 126 at the time of its riddance, a consequence that came out of left field for its supporters, who cited the U.S. sending softball equipment to other nations to accelerate development.
With its welcome at the ’96 Games, softball advanced the IOC’s goal of erasing the gap between male and female athletes at the Games. The sport met other emphasized criteria, too — elite player participation, easy to understand, affordable facilities and no history of performance-enhancement drugs.
What went wrong? Evidently, the U.S. team was too dominant. At the three Olympics before the devastating vote, the Americans not only claimed every gold but went 24-4, outscoring opponents by a cumulative 117-14.
The utter U.S. control in the 2004 Games might have sealed the sport’s fate. The unbeaten Americans outscored helpless opponents 51-1.
“I never heard anything about dropping men’s basketball when the U.S. was beating everybody by 40 points in 1992,” said Lisa Fernandez, the longtime ace of its pitching staff.
She argued that the men’s Dream Team, with its star power, ignited global growth of basketball, and that softball would follow at its own pace.
Adding to the chagrin of the two excised sports was that the IOC conducts votes in secretly and does not fully explain its reasoning, thus leaving those unduly affected in the dark.
Topping off the frustration for softball was unfortunate timing. In Beijing, three years after the vote, Japan stunned the U.S. 3-1 in the championship game.
Both sports carried out bids for reinstatement beginning with the 2016 Games but were denied. Baseball officials lobbied their softball counterparts to unite in a joint effort, but softball declined, electing to campaign on its own merits.
Showing a never-say-die spirit, the jilted sports will try again for 2020. The challenge is steep now that the IOC is at its self-imposed maximum of 28 summer sports since adding golf and rugby for Rio de Janeiro, and the two federations are discussing a collaborative effort this time.
One aspect in the favor: For all of the IOC’s rules on reinstatement, one does not exist.
Three strikes and you’re out (forever).