Bryce Harper made a passionate and patriotic plea Thursday that has no chance of coming to fruition.
During an interview with former major-league pitcher Dallas Braden on Barstool Sports’ Starting 9 podcast, the Phillies right fielder called it a “travesty” that big-league baseball players are not part of the Olympics.
“You’re going to grow the game as much as possible and you’re not going to let us play in the Olympics because you don’t want to [lose] out on money for a two-week period?” Harper said. “OK, that’s dumb.”
It’s great that Harper wants to represent the United States in the Olympics. He’s a hockey fan, so I’m sure he has seen some of the ultra-intense Olympic battles between the U.S. and Canada and would love to compete in a similar manner against baseball powers like the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Japan.
Baseball, of course, was part of the Olympics from the 1992 Games in Barcelona through the 2008 Games in Beijing. The United States even provided a “Miracle on the Diamond” moment when a group of mostly minor-leaguers managed by Tommy Lasorda stunned Cuba in the 2000 gold medal game in Sydney.
Ben Sheets, a first-round pick by Milwaukee in 1999, was the hero in the title game, pitching a three-hit shutout against the team that had won gold in the first two Olympic baseball tournaments. That team also included Roy Oswalt, who allowed just two runs in 13 innings while twice beating South Korea.
The United States also won bronze medals in 1996 in Atlanta and 2008 in Beijing. The game was scheduled to return to this year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which have now been moved to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Harper does not want the United States sending minor-leaguers to the Olympics, however. He wants the best big-leaguers from every country to play in Tokyo.
“Why not shock the world and put all your big-leaguers back in it?” Harper said. “You want to grow the game? You want to really take it to different countries and different places? [Major-leaguers] have to do the Olympics every four years.
“You have [Shohei] Ohtani going back playing for Japan, facing Mike Trout. Just imagine that. ... Can you imagine being in a foreign country, standing on the line, listening to your anthem blare? Dude, there is nothing better. It fires me up sitting here. There’s nothing better."
The chances of that happening in the Tokyo Olympics or even during the span of Harper’s 13-year contract with the Phillies are slim to none. Baseball might be gone again after the Tokyo Games because the International Olympic Committee is not nearly as fired up about the game as Harper is about the thought of competing for gold.
In fact, the primary reason baseball is back in these Olympics is because, unlike our country, baseball is still the No. 1 game in Japan. Right now, there’s no guarantee that baseball will remain an Olympic sport at the 2024 games in Paris.
The obstacles for Harper’s plan go well beyond that. It should be noted that the United States has not yet qualified for the next Olympics because it lost a game to Mexico in November when it last had the chance to punch its ticket to Tokyo. It was supposed to play in another qualifier in March, but the coronavirus shut that tournament down.
Major League Baseball owners certainly do not share Harper’s enthusiasm for having big-league players play in Tokyo because they already have a vested interest in another international event. The fifth World Baseball Classic is also scheduled for 2021, albeit from March 9 through 23, when teams are still in the middle of spring training.
To be sure the WBC has been challenged in its attempt to provide the world with an elite international tournament for a variety of reasons. Starting pitchers are not stretched out enough at that time of year to go deep into games, so that obviously makes the game a lot different from what you see in big-league parks during the summer. At times, it has also been difficult to get all the best players to agree to participate.
The United States, even without Harper and Trout, fielded its most talented team in 2017 and won the WBC for the first time. Ratings on the MLB Network were up significantly and MLB is surely eager to build on those numbers next year.
The owners will never be interested in stopping the season to let their players participate in the Olympics even though it would be a better event because the participants would be in midseason form.
The NHL owners weighed the value of sending their players to the Olympics and concluded it was not worth it and they did not take part in the 2018 Winter Games. With NBA players participating in basketball during their offseason and so many other events (track, swimming, gymnastics, and beach volleyball) already the focus of the Olympics, the attention that baseball would receive would not be worth the lost revenue.
It’s nice that Bryce Harper wants to play for the USA, but his international fix is going to have to come from the World Baseball Classic, an imperfect event with good intentions.