Proposal to Include MLB Players in the 2028 Los Angeles Games Faces Olympian Hurdles

Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

For over a century, baseball and the Summer Olympics have made for an uneasy mix at best. Dating back to the days when the Olympics was purely for amateur athletes, the sport has only sporadically been part of the slate, usually as an exhibition or demonstration. Major League Baseball’s refusal to release its players to participate — thereby disrupting its own schedule — led the International Olympic Committee to drop it in 2005, a slight that gave rise to the World Baseball Classic as an alternative. Now a group has begun a push to convince MLB owners to allow big leaguers to participate in the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, but to these eyes, it feels rather underwhelming in the shadow of the WBC’s success.

Via The Athletic’s Evan Drellich, at this week’s owners meetings in Orlando, Florida, Casey Wasserman presented a proposal for how such participation could work. Wasserman has feet in both worlds, serving as the CEO of the Wasserman Agency, which represents many of the game’s highest-paid stars, and also as the president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, which was successful in landing the 2028 Games for L.A. According to Drellich, he offered a blueprint for a six-to-eight team tournament that could be played on a condensed schedule of less than a week, one that wouldn’t be much more disruptive than the annual All-Star break.

In fact the timing of the 2028 games — from July 14–30 — is close enough to the usual All-Star break that it could supplant that year’s Midsummer Classic, according to Drellich. By comparison, the last five Summer Olympics have all either crossed into or taken place entirely in August. While that wasn’t the reason MLB didn’t let its players participate, it would have required a second break in the season, one happening just as the races for playoff spots heated up, and sometimes past the trade deadline, making it harder to replace a player lost to injury in the tournament.

Some background is in order. Though it appeared in the Olympics as an exhibition or demonstration sport 10 times from 1896 through 1988, baseball didn’t become an official event until the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, with the winners awarded medals. In both the 1992 Barcelona Games and the 1996 Atlanta Games, only amateurs were allowed to play; perhaps not surprisingly, Cuba — whose players were amateur in name only, as they were employed by the state in other jobs but allowed to focus mainly on training — won the gold medal.

For the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, the IOC permitted professional players to participate, though MLB refused to allow its active major leaguers to play, unlike their counterparts in the National Basketball Association, which was at least in its offseason, and National Hockey League, which took a midseason break to accommodate the schedule. Nonetheless, the Tommy Lasorda-managed Team USA, made up of minor leaguers including future All-Stars Roy Oswalt and Ben Sheets, won the gold, beating Cuba in that year’s finals. MLB held firm on its players’ nonparticipation stance with regards to the 2004 and 2008 games, but in 2005, the IOC threw a hissy fit, dropping both it and women’s softball from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Not until 2021, for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo — stubbornly un-rebranded despite the pandemic-induced delay — did baseball return.

It was in reaction to that 2005 slight that MLB, the players union, other professional leagues and players associations from abroad, and the International Baseball Federation came together to create the World Baseball Classic. Modeled after the FIFA World Cup, and drawing some — but hardly all — of the top players from the top leagues, the March tournaments have been increasingly successful, engaging and tremendously exciting. You may recall that the 2023 WBC, the fifth tournament of its kind, ended with Japan’s Shohei Ohtani serving as closer and striking out Team USA’s Mike Trout to nail down a 3-2 victory. Rooting interest aside, you can’t ask for much more than that.

Indeed, MLB and friends have built themselves an enjoyable spectacle, one whose attendance grew 20% from 2017 (1.087 million) to 2023 (1.306 million). The tournament’s television audience was its largest yet this last time around as well, both in the US and abroad (particularly Japan). According to Forbes, “The 2023 World Baseball Classic was seen in 163 countries and territories, with 63 different media partners broadcasting the tournament in 13 languages.” The tournament has helped grow the game internationally by including teams from Europe as well as Asia, Oceania, and Central and South America. Teams from numerous nontraditional baseball locales have participated in WBC qualifying tournaments, with the Czech Republic, Great Britain, and Nicaragua reaching the WBC’s 20-team field for 2023.

By comparison, the Tokyo Olympics included just six teams, namely the hosts (Japan) and five others who qualified via preliminary tournaments held in 2019 and 2021 (Israel, Mexico, South Korea, the United States, and the Dominican Republic). The participating teams were split into two pools of three, where they played a round-robin, and then proceeded with a modified double-elimination bracket; the whole 16-game slate took 11 days to complete, with each team playing anywhere from three to seven games. With the various professional major leagues in full swing, rosters were limited to minor leaguers and unsigned players; Team USA had a mix of prospects such as Shane Baz, Triston Casas, and Joe Ryan, and former major leaguers like Tyler Austin, Tim Federowicz, Todd Frazier, and Edwin Jackson. David Robertson, then unemployed as he worked his way back from Tommy John surgery, notably used the event as a springboard to signing a major league deal with the Rays. As in the 2023 WBC final, Japan beat Team USA in the gold medal game, while a Dominican Republic team that included both 40-year-old José Bautista and 20-year-old Julio Rodríguez won bronze by a beating South Korea team that included KBO stars such as Euiji Yang and Jung Hoo Lee. Not only was there not a lot of fanfare for the proceedings, but the games, like the rest of that Olympics, were played without spectators.

In contrast to the six teams that participated in baseball in the 2021 2020 Summer Games, the men’s soccer tournament included 16 teams and limits on the number of players over 24 years old who could participate, while the women’s tournament included 12 teams and no age restrictions. Both men’s and women’s basketball included 12 teams as well. The Wasserman-proposed Olympic baseball competition wouldn’t approach those or the WBC in scale, with the number of teams limited by the compressed timeframe. While Drellich didn’t report the details, it’s not too hard to envision an eight-team format, with two pools of four teams each playing a round-robin group stage, and then the top two teams from each pool advancing to the semifinals, with the winners of those games playing for gold and silver medals, and the losers playing for the bronze. As to how to select those eight (or however many) teams, Drellich suggested that the 2026 WBC — which, to be clear isn’t being replaced by the Olympics — could be used as a qualifier.

If that all sounds less than compelling, to these eyes it certainly is. The 2023 WBC spanned two weeks and included 47 games in a glorious international festival that brought us competitive baseball of several different flavors a few weeks before the regular season kicked off. With so much else going on in the Olympics at any given time, baseball even with major league stars doesn’t seem likely to replicate that impact, particularly with such a small field of teams. What’s more, the sport won’t be part of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, and the major league aspect of the 2028 games is likely to be a one-and-done affair. It’s one thing to carve out an extra week in midseason when MLB’s participants only have to travel as far as Los Angeles; it’s another to do so for the 2032 Summer Olympics in Brisbane, Australia, though to be fair, even the 2028 plan rests on asking NPB and KBO players and their respective leagues to bear a similar burden.

One complaint often voiced about the WBC is that at that early date, players may not be at their peak in terms of conditioning. For a midseason Olympics, they presumably would be in better shape, but the problem with this assumption is that it’s hard to imagine teams being more willing to let their starting pitchers work harder than they do in the WBC, when they’re capped at 65 pitches in pool play, 80 in the quarterfinals, and 95 in the semis and finals. For starters, spring training is largely about building up pitch counts, and that buildup has to happen whether it’s in a Grapefruit League game, a minor league exhibition (often if a guy is dealing with an injury or working on mechanics), or a tournament game; the added adrenaline produced by WBC games instead of exhibitions may actually benefit the pitchers. Color me skeptical that teams will be eager to let their pitchers throw more than All-Star Game-length stints in the Olympics, and also concerned that we might be in for a stretch of low-scoring affairs as parades of hard-throwing relievers dominate the proceedings.

Beyond that is the question of the games’ impact on major league schedules. It’s not clear from the article whether it was Wasserman or Drellich who suggested the schedule could be temporarily reduced to 158 games, but anyone reading this with 2020 in mind knows that the Major League Baseball Players Association isn’t just going to forfeit four games worth of salary without receiving a compensatory cut of the Olympic proceeds, at least via television rights. The logistics of how that would all work aren’t even covered by the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which runs through 2026 and which was hammered out only after a winter-long lockout by the owners. Negotiations over the next CBA are expected to be similarly contentious even without an attempt to reduce the schedule length, whether or not it’s a one-off. As it is, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark did tell Drellich via a statement, “The Players Association would be willing to listen to any formal proposal related to baseball and the Olympics,” but he was otherwise noncommittal.

Then there’s the question of the Olympics brand and getting into bed with the IOC. Commissioner Rob Manfred and the MLB owners are no angels by any stretch of the imagination. The group’s members are capable of financial chicanery and outright lies to the public (see: Fisher, John), but they have largely done a very good job when it comes to the WBC. The IOC, on the other hand, is almost comically corrupt, with the determination of winning bids to host the games routinely driven by payola. I say this as a Salt Lake City native who enjoyed the hell out of attending the 2002 Winter Olympics even while acknowledging that they wouldn’t have happened in my home state without officials being bribed to support SLC’s bid. To borrow a line from the 1981 film Coup de Torchon, “It’s a dirty job… And I deserve all the dirty pleasure I get out of it.”

While it’s not as though MLB’s owners are participating in the bribery-driven determination of locales — the Los Angeles Games were booked in 2017 — a longer-term association with the IOC opens the door for the owners’ exposure (if not outright participation) in future schemes. Even apart from that, it’s worth remembering that the IOC would be running the show, putting its own interests first, and baseball’s owners just aren’t geared to such subservience. Even if the medal games take place in Dodger Stadium (which seems likely), it’s entirely possible those could be overshadowed by other events within the five-ring circus, whether it’s gymnastics or soccer or the competitive scandal du jour.

At a press conference on Thursday, Manfred described Wasserman’s presentation as “thoughtful and polished” but sounded less than fully convinced the plan could work. “I think the pros are the potential for an association between two great brands,” he said. “I love that combination of nationalism and sport.”

“The con is the logistics,” he added. “If you look at the calendar, its complicated by the [Olympics’] proximity to the All-Star Game.” Manfred also noted that he preferred a multiple-year commitment for MLB’s involvement but “Casey softened me a little bit,” to the possibility of this being a one-time participation.

Any plan to get MLB players into the Olympics faces numerous obstacles, including union approval. Maybe a one-off event to put the game’s best on the Olympic platform is nonetheless worth the hassle within MLB’s efforts to grow the game internationally. Maybe it’s even worth getting into bed with the IOC. But to these eyes, this isn’t something that the league needs, and the drawbacks are quite apparent. Give me the World Baseball Classic any day.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
21 days ago

No chance a team lets a pitcher of significance pitch in an Olympic game in the middle of the season,