Baseball is back in the Olympics — here's how Canada can qualify
The road looks tougher than it was back in 2008
Baseball's days as an Olympic sport appeared to be over when it was dropped after the 2008 Games in Beijing. But host countries now have a say in what's included beyond the permanent sports, and baseball is big in Japan. So it's back on the program for the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
It looks like a short-lived return, though: organizers of the Paris 2024 Olympics left baseball off their list of sports they want to add. They'd rather have surfing, climbing, skateboarding and breakdancing. The International Olympic Committee will make the final call late next year, but it doesn't look good.
That adds urgency to the Canadian national team's quest to qualify for the Olympics for the third straight time and take another shot at winning its first medal. It's going to be tougher this time, though. The tournament was cut from eight teams to six, and Canada is currently ranked 12th in the world. Plus, four spots are already filled: No. 1-ranked Japan is in as the host country, while South Korea, Mexico and Israel earned spots via qualifying tournaments.
Not to get too cute, but Canada faced a three-strikes-and-you're-out situation. And it's now down to its final two strikes.
Strike 1: The WBSC Premier 12 tournament
The WBSC is the international governing body for baseball and softball. The Premier 12 is a tournament for — you guessed it — the top 12 countries in the world. It happened in November, and this year's event doubled as an Olympic qualifier. South Korea and Mexico won the two available spots. Canada was eliminated in the first round of the tournament after going 1-2 in its group.
Strike 2: The Americas qualifying tournament
This eight-team event starts March 22 in Arizona. Canada is in a group with Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela. The other group has the U.S., Dominican Republican, Puerto Rico and Nicaragua. The top two teams from each group advance to the super round, where they play the two survivors from the other group.
When it's over, only the team with the best final record earns a ticket ot Tokyo. But the second- and third-place finishers get one last shot.
The Dominican team will include former Blue Jays star Jose Bautista and much-hyped Tampa Bay Rays prospect Wander Franco.
Strike 3: The final world qualifying tournament
Six teams will fight for the final Olympic spot at this last-chance event in Taiwan. It was supposed to start April 1, but it was pushed back to June 17-21 because of the coronavirus crisis.
Based on the results of various regional qualifiers, we already know four of the teams: Taiwan, China, Australia and the Netherlands. They'll be joined by the second- and third-place finishers from the Americas qualifying tournament.
Other stuff to know
One of the issues with Olympic baseball is that it happens during the Major League Baseball season and MLB doesn't pause to let the best players go. That's part of the reason why Cuba is the best country in the history of Olympic baseball (it's won three of the five gold medals, plus two silver). The Communist regime doesn't allow people to leave the country. So, with the exception of defectors, most of its best baseball players compete in Cuba's domestic league, which doesn't overlap with the Olympics. It's similar to how the Soviet Union dominated Olympic hockey in the Iron Curtain era, before the NHL allowed its players to participate.
That being said, you might recognize some former major leaguers on Team Canada. In its only win of the Premier 12 event, over Cuba, ex-Phillies pitcher Phillippe Aumont threw eight shutout innings. Ex-Blue Jay Michael Saunders, who put off retirement to play for the national team, drove in one of the runs. Pitcher Scott Richmond and outfielder Dalton Pompey have also played for the Jays — the latter as recently as 2018. And the manager will be familiar to fans of the '80s Jays: Ernie Whitt.
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