Baseball’s Olympic return

Baseball makes its Olympic comeback at Tokyo 2020. Our guide takes you through the rules, the best teams and the baseball lingo you need to know.
A panoramic view of a baseball game from behind the batter and catcher in a game at Beijing 2008.
A panoramic view of a baseball game from behind the batter and catcher in a game at Beijing 2008.A panoramic view of a baseball game from behind the batter and catcher in a game at Beijing 2008.

Following a two-Games hiatus, baseball is set to make its Olympic comeback at Tokyo 2020. Promising out-of-the-park action between world-class teams, the tournament is guaranteed to wow the crowd in baseball-mad Japan.

After making its unofficial debut at the 1904 St Louis Games, Olympic baseball intermittently appeared as a demonstration sport over the following 80-plus years. Finally, at Barcelona 1992, it was added to the official programme. A decade later, though, the sport was voted out of the Games for London 2012 and Rio 2016. Even though baseball’s Olympic tenure has been fleeting so far, it’s still managed to conjure up some wonderful sporting memories – such as these three – for fans across the world.

Ahead of the sport’s return at Tokyo 2020, we’ve got all the information you need to know about Olympic baseball.

Olympic baseball rules

A baseball batter hits the ball and begins to run during a baseball match.
A baseball batter hits the ball and begins to run during a baseball match.A baseball batter hits the ball and begins to run during a baseball match.

In an Olympic baseball game, two teams – containing nine players each – compete to score the most runs.

It begins with one team batting, and one fielding. The batting team has one player on ‘home plate’ – one of four bases that make up a baseball ‘diamond’. The aim is to hit the ball, and run around these bases, back to the home plate, to score a run.

Meanwhile, the fielding team has: one pitcher, who throws the ball to the batter from the central mound; the catcher who stands behind the batter; and three outfielders and four infielders, ready to catch the ball.

A batter is out when they miss the ball three times or are run-out between bases – this is done when a fielder catches the ball while standing at the next nearest base to the running batter.

When the fielding team gets three players from the opposition out, the teams switch roles – this counts as one inning. There are nine innings over a game.

The winners are the team who score the most runs after these nine innings. In the event of a tie, an additional inning is played until one team outscores the other after an equal number of turns batting.

The World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) – who will run the 2020 Olympic tournament – have implemented some new rules for the Tokyo competition. There are now 12-second limits between throws. In addition, the teams will have just 90 seconds to switch from batting to fielding – and vice versa – during innings.

Tournament format

A baseball pitcher throws the ball at the batter during a game.
A baseball pitcher throws the ball at the batter during a game.A baseball pitcher throws the ball at the batter during a game.

The Tokyo 2020 tournament will host six teams, with games played over a total of 11 days. Games will take place at the 30,000-capacity Yokohama Stadium and the Fukushima Azuma Stadium – a particularly inspiring choice, in an area which is still recovering from the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

In Olympic baseball, the tournament format is quite unique and will unfold like this:

Group stage

· Six teams are split into two groups of three, Group A and Group B.

· Every team plays the other two teams in their group once.

· No teams are eliminated at this stage.

Knockout stage

· The first, second and third-placed teams in the group play the corresponding teams in the other group. So, the team in Group A which came third will play the team in Group B who came third.

· This stage of the tournament is contested in a double-elimination format.

· The loser of the game between the two third-placed teams in Group A and B is eliminated first.

· If a team wins their first knockout game, they remain in the ‘winners bracket’, losers go into the ‘losers bracket’.

· An additional five games are played between the teams within the winners and losers brackets to determine who qualifies for the medal games.

Medal games

· The last two teams eliminated in the knockout stage of the ‘losers bracket’ play off in the bronze medal game.

· The two victorious teams in the ‘winners bracket’ and the ‘losers bracket’ play each other in the gold medal game.

Who can qualify and how?

The South Korean team celebrate together in a team photo after winning gold.
The South Korean team celebrate together in a team photo after winning gold.The South Korean team celebrate together in a team photo after winning gold.

The Japanese team, as the hosts, automatically qualify for the tournament. The coveted five remaining spots are earned as follows:

·      Two highest placing teams from Asia and the Americas in the WBSC Premier12 tournament. Two teams will qualify through the 2019 WBSC Premier12 tournament, which contains the 12 top-ranked teams in the world.

·      The winner of a combined African and European tournament. The top five teams from the 2019 European Baseball Championship and the winner of the African Baseball Championship 2019 will compete for one qualifying spot.

·      The winner of the Americas Qualifying event. This will feature eight teams from the Americas who didn’t qualify from the WBSC Premier12 tournament and the top finishers at the 2019 Pan American Games who didn’t reach the Premier12.

·      The winner of the final World Qualification tournament. The final Olympic spot is contested by six teams who were runners-up in the above qualifying events.

Most promising teams

Traditionally, Cuba have been the powerhouses in Olympic baseball, capturing three golds out of the five competitions thus far – and never earning less than a silver.

However, the USA and host-nation Japan are hot on their heels and both have to be considered favourites to claim gold in the returning competition.

South Korea are not to be discounted, either. They shocked the baseball world in Beijing 2008, toppling Cuba in the gold medal match. As proud reigning champions, they’ll be hoping to wear gold around their necks once again when the tournament comes to a close.

A quick guide to baseball terminology

Learning the lingo is just as important as knowing the rules. Here are some terms you’ll hear during the Olympic baseball tournament and what they mean:

·      Batter. A player attempting to hit the ball with a bat to score runs.

·      Pitcher. The player on the fielding team who serves the ball to the batter from a central mound on the field.

·      Catcher. The player who stands behind the batter and tries to catch the pitcher’s throws.

·      Base. One of four targets a batter must touch to score a run.

·      Home run. When a batter hits the ball out of the park to automatically score a run.

·      Strike. When a batter misses the ball while trying to hit it. Three of these and that batter is out.

Keep up with the latest ins and outs of baseball on the Olympic Channel.

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