USA Baseball ready to begin the road to Tokyo 2020

Team USA will play in the WBSC Premier 12 tournament hoping for one of four remaining spots in the Olympics.

Baseball has been out of the past two Olympics but it is returning next summer at the Tokyo Games, where it is Japan's most popular sport.

"It's awesome," United States baseball manager Scott Brosius said.

"For us, in the United States, we know how important the game is to us. It's made me scratch my head over the years, like, ‘How can baseball come and go from the Olympics? It needs to be a part of this.' For me, when baseball is back, the U.S. needs to be a part of that."

The sport likely won't be at the 2024 Games in Paris but will in the 2028 Games in Los Angeles. Why should it be included in the Olympics?

Because the game is growing worldwide, according to the U.S. manager.

"I think if you looked 10 years ago you could probably just see on one hand the teams that were power nations when it comes to baseball," Brosius said.

"Now you can look around the globe and in the Americas, the number of teams that play good baseball. And if you go to the Far East, there is really good baseball there. And now you can see it's spreading in Australia and up in Europe.

"There are just more and more countries playing and more and more youngsters playing and that's a great thing for the game globally."

Tough qualifying path

Unlike in past Olympics, there are only six countries who will compete in baseball at the 2020 Games as opposed to the previous eight.

Japan, which is hosting the Olympics, naturally will be one of the teams playing while Israel, which won the Europe-Africa tournament last month, has also qualified

The question is which of the other countries will qualify for the four remaining spots. After all, there are great players from many countries in addition to the U.S., such as Japan, South Korea, the Dominican Republic, Canada, Cuba, Venezuela, Australia and the Netherlands. Even Germany has produced an excellent outfielder, the Minnesota Twins' Max Kepler, who grew up as the son of two ballet dancers in Berlin.

"The (countries) are all going to be tough," said Sydney 2000 gold medallist Ernie Young, who is now third base coach for the U.S. team. "Once you get to that point in the Olympics, you can't over estimate any opponent that you're going to play because as soon as that happens, you're headed for trouble."

Hoping to qualify for the Olympics soon are the United States, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, who will be playing at the WBSC Premier 12 tournament in Zapopan, Mexico, in the first week of November. The two top teams there will then play in the Super Round in Japan later in November with two teams (one from the Americas and the other from Asia/Oceania) making the 2020 Olympics.

Another big team, the Netherlands, will also play in the Premier 12 but cannot qualify through that competition.

The U.S. baseball team hasn't competed in every Olympics – it didn't qualify for the 2004 Athens Games – but they have many good players now including a number major league prospects. On the roster are players ranging in age from 20-year-old outfielder Jo Adell and infielder Xavier Edwards to 39-year-old catcher and former MLB player Erik Kratz. Still, they will have strong competition from other countries.

"It's going to be difficult. It's not an easy goal," Adell said. "Obviously, we have to take every game one day at a time. Compete and win the games we need to. And not get ahead of ourselves. If we do, I think that looks good for us."

"Just like every other team, it will be pretty difficult," 24-year-old pitcher Wyatt Mills said. "But every game in baseball, like Coach Brosius said, ‘It's like Game 7 of the World Series.' You have to win every single game. It's cut throat. I'm really confident with the way our team will play."

Olympic dreams

The country that has done the best in baseball at the Olympics is Cuba, which has won three gold medals and two silvers. The U.S., however, beat Cuba 4-0 in the finals at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, the only time it won gold in the sport.

"Going in we were the underdogs against Cuba and no one really gave us a chance and we kept winning and winning and getting closer and closer. And we basically beat all the odds," said 2000 gold medallist Anthony Sanders, who also is now the first base coach on the U.S. team. "We believed from day one that we had a chance to win."

The Americans are certainly looking to win the tournament in Mexico, qualify for the Olympics at the Premier 12 finals in Japan, and then get to play there again next summer where they hope to win another gold medal.

"That's going to be really exciting," Mills said. "I know Japan really gets behind their players. So going to Japan, we're going to have a target on our backs in every single game. That will be a really fun battle."

"They absolutely love baseball (in Japan)," Kratz said. "To get the opportunity to play in front of that many fans, against the best international competition, it's going to be great. The energy of playing there and trying to win a gold medal, it's going to be electric. Electric. They love baseball there."

Ichiro Suzuki, a star in Japan and in the U.S., is the most popular player in his country though he has said several times he doesn't want to play in the Olympics. But that was often because he wanted to play in Major League Baseball, which doesn't allow players on their clubs' 40-man roster to take time off for the Olympics. Now that he is retired, who knows if Suzuki has changed his mind?

Who will win the gold medal at the Olympics? That's impossible to say because so many teams are so good.

"All games are going to be tough," Young said. "When you go out there and put that uniform on that says USA, everyone wants to beat you."

And beat all the other countries as well so they can win a gold medal.

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