Baseball hoping for Olympic future after Beijing

(dpa) - Baseball teams representing eight countries will begin Olympic play on Wednesday in Beijing in what could be their last chance to bring home the gold.

Baseball's role in the Olympics has been in doubt since the International Olympic Committee in 2005 voted the sport - along with the women's version, softball - out of the 2012 London Games, and the future of baseball in the Games remains murky.

The IOC will meet in October 2009 to select sports for the 2016 Summer Olympics. International and US baseball officials hope a good showing in Beijing will persuade the IOC to bring the sport back, and that the steroid doping scandal that plagued US-based Major League Baseball, the world's top professional circuit, is in the past.

"What we're hoping to do is prove to the IOC that our sport is truly a global sport - that it's played around the world," Harvey Schiller, head of the International Baseball Federation, said in an interview from his office in New York.

Baseball has long been the national pastime in the United States, but it is also a favorite in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico and Japan, and has been emerging in Australia, South Korea, Taiwan and a few more Latin American countries. Although played in Europe, it usually takes place with little fanfare or media interest.

The International Baseball Federation and Major League Baseball have launched an aggressive global campaign to promote the sport in regions where it goes unnoticed.

One month before the IOC gathering, the International Baseball Federation will stage its World Cup tournament in seven European nations: the Czech Republic, Germany, Netherlands, Russia, Spain and Sweden.

Major League Baseball launched its World Classic tournament in 2006, featuring many of the best players from MLB representing their countries in the tournament, which was won by Japan. MLB hopes the Classic will help grow the game internationally.

But the decision to remove baseball from the Olympic venue has been a disappointment to many of the 112 countries with recognized programmes.

Among the disappointed is Baseball Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda, the legendary, 21-year manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers who came out of retirement in 2000 to lead a US team of unheralded minor- leaguers to a shocking upset over heavily favoured Cuba to win the gold in Sydney.

"I think it's a disgrace they have taken baseball and softball out," Lasorda said in an interview with Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa. "This is the worst decision I could've ever hear about."

Lasorda, winner of two US championships in four title appearances with his great Dodger teams, considers the Olympic victory his most cherished achievement. It marked the first time the Americans won the tournament traditionally dominated by Cuba.

"It was bigger than my 50-plus years with the Dodgers," said Lasorda, 81.

Baseball's image by been harmed by perceptions that the game is too slow, and steroid use among some star players has done its share of damage.

But Major League Baseball has toughened its doping testing programme, and international baseball officials point out that Olympic baseball players must undergo the same scrutiny as athletes in other sports. They also point out that track and field and cycling have remained engrained Olympic sports despite their own doping issues.

Plus, the problems experienced by MLB in recent years have not deterred Latin Americans and Asian ball players from coming to the United States to play in the world's top league.

About 30 per cent of all Major League players are from outside the United States, including Japanese stars like Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka and Dominicans David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero.

" Japan is the second nation to the United States that loves baseball," said Masaru Ushiro, director of Japan's Amateur Baseball organization.

Japan was working to promote baseball and rescue its role in Olympic play in what's called the "Baseball Again" initiative, Ushiro said, adding that his league has donated equipment and sent coaches to developing nations to promote an understanding of the game.

"We have lots of fans and players including children," he said. "Without the Olympic baseball, we will lose our baseball population all together."

Lin Tzung-cheng, head of Taiwan's baseball association, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa that he was optimistic that the IOC will restore baseball at its October 2009 gathering.

"If the meeting decides not to put baseball back, it will be very unfair because baseball is a very important sport," he said.

US baseball officials acknowledge that there are still challenges to convince the world that baseball is a worthy Olympic sport. There are a limited number of countries where it is popular, and football- crazy Europe represents one of those challenges.

"If a sport isn't germane to your culture, a lot of time the tendency is to say, 'Well, it's boring, or it's not interesting.' Baseball is one of those," said Paul Seiler, executive director of USA Baseball.

"Our challenge is to expose our sport and what's good and unique about our sport to nations where it's not a part of their culture."

The eight teams slated to play when the tournament gets underway this week are: Canada, China, Cuba, Japan, Netherlands, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States.

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