The Little League World Series is over, only this year it just wasn’t the same, because the world couldn’t come. It’s obvious why: COVID-19. After cancelling the entire tournament last year for the first time ever, this year Little League Baseball returned the World Series to Williamsport, but only with American-based teams due to COVID concerns.
And while it did prove to be an excellent tournament, it still lacked much of what has made the tournament special: the international teams.
You see, part of the fun of the event is in seeing kids from so many places have fun with each other. It doesn’t matter if they are from Ohio or Osaka, it’s good to see people from different cultures bonding over a shared love for baseball.
However, there is also the fact that it also just wasn’t as fun to watch. Different countries bring different styles of play, which can be interesting. Plus, there are a clearer way of determining underdogs: you may not be able to tell who the favorite in a game between Texas and California is, but when it’s Japan vs. Australia or Curacao vs. Italy, you are instantly pulled in. Sure, the favorite almost always wins, but it is fascinating to get pulled in by the drama of seeing how long the underdogs can keep pace. And regardless of what happens, the kids don’t care: they are still having fun.
But, alas, some of that didn’t happen this year. Hopefully it’ll be back next year.
So, I’ve been slacking with updates this past week due to “real world concerns”. So to make up for it, here are three neat links:
First off, there’s Clem’s Baseball. It has a giant array of diagrams showing how ballparks have changed over the years, including how they’ve adapted for other sports like football.
Want to stay up to date on Japanese baseball? Jim Allen has been in Japan for decades and once worked the sports desk of Japan’s biggest English-language paper. Now, he writes about Nippon Pro Baseball on his blog.
No, it’s about morning baseball. Well, it’s during the afternoon or night where it is taking place, but due to time zone differences they are in the morning in the USA. Mostly that…
I quite enjoy it! Sure, I might not always be able to get up on time or stay awake for all of it, but whether it was the Olympics or ESPN’s KBO coverage during 2020, I found myself at least trying to watch. And at times, I got super-pulled into it, just as if it was a regularly-timed game in our hemisphere. Besides, it’s nice to wake up and watch baseball instead of doing whatever it was you would normally be doing early in the morning.
Alas, now that is gone. Oh, sure, I can if I want try to find some stuff streaming, but that isn’t quite as easy as it is during the Olympics or when KBO was on ESPN.
Which is why I’m calling on MLB Network to fill in the gap. Have on games from Asia before MLB Central is on every morning. It would be surprisingly cheap to do: the pandemic has shown that calls can be made from continents away, and I’m sure that the rights for the games wouldn’t be too expensive. It wouldn’t even have to be every day: perhaps just once or twice a week they could showcase a game from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, or (during winter) Australia.
Taiwan AKA Chinese Taipei AKA Formosa isn’t in this year’s Olympic tournament, but their league remains one of the best in Asia. And while during some research ahead of this Olympics, I came across CPBL Stats.
While not updated daily, it has a good constant stream of news from Taiwan’s top baseball league, as well as (of course) stats and info on how you can watch CPBL baseball online.
Way back in 2012, I did a post discussing what a baseball dream team for Team USA would have looked like in an alternate world where MLB stars came to the Olympics when NBA stars did: the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. And while my formatting and grammar wasn’t great (it was the first year of the blog), I still think it was a neat exercise.
So now, with the 2020 (err… 2021) games in full-swing in Tokyo, I got to wondering: What would the dream team have been in 1996? Let’s move forward that clock and assume that Team USA’s Olympic Baseball Team won gold in 1992, although not nearly in such a dominant manner as the basketball team did since international baseball talent in 1992 was better than international basketball talent in 1992. What does the team look like in 1996 in Atlanta?
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The 2020 Summer Games were looking to be a throwback Olympics with minimal issues. Sure, it would cost too much, the weather would have been a bit too hot, and there undoubtedly would be some political and/or drug-related issues, but at least it wouldn’t be a case of a city biting off far more than it could chew. There wouldn’t be a seemingly endless number of venues left behind empty, gathering dust as a reminder of games long-since past. The city hosting the games wouldn’t go bankrupt from it all, either. Tokyo was going to have the best-run Olympics since London in 2012.
And while to varying degrees all that is still true, it will be barely a shadow of what it should have been. It’s because COVID-19, of course. So instead of what was looking like one of the best Olympics in history, this may well go down as one of the worst. Or at least one of the biggest bummers of a game.
The Olympics are often a complicated thing. On one hand, the idea of having athletes from all around the world come together in some great global city and then have competitions in over two dozen sports over a two week span is inherently dramatic, appealing, and awe-inspiring. On the other hand, it is run by the IOC, an organization that has shown time and again to be varying degrees of elitist, sexist, corporate, autocratic, out-of-touch, corrupt, and various other unflattering things. Perhaps that’s more true than ever this year, where they are quite literally holding an event in the middle of a pandemic without fans and apparently not even giving Tokyo a make-up date sometime in the 2030s or 2040s where they’d actually be able to see it and get the money from all those fans.
And yet, ultimately, once the games begin, most of us will probably forget it all, because we always do.
Anyway, now that that rumination is done, it’s time for some final predictions on Olympic Baseball. A refresher on the tournament (which is admittedly a bit out of date as far as the COVID precautions in the Olympics) can be found here. As a recap, here are the teams involved, in order of when I did previews of them. Click to go to the previews (please note these do not reflect recent changes due to injuries or COVID tests, I will likely have another update before the start of the tournament):
For gold, I think this is ultimately the homestanding Japanese team’s tournament to lose. Behind them I’m going to say that Team USA will be able to beat out Korea or the Dominican for the silver before falling to Japan. The Dominicans will edge out Korea for bronze. Mexico and Israel, thanks for playing.
However, it should be noted that as always in baseball, and especially during international play where series aren’t things, this is ultimately a crapshoot. If a team’s pitching is clicking and hitting is opportune, any one of these teams, even Israel, could conceivably win gold. On the same coin, some bad days of pitching or dead bats could lead to one of the top teams having an early trip home.
The only way we’ll be sure is when the teams take the field late on July 27.
Since my previews went up, there have been some changes to the rosters:
First off, two members of the South Korean team were removed from the roster as part of a punishment for breaking social distancing. Those players, 2B Min-Woo Park and P Hyun-hee Han, have also been suspended the rest of the KBO season. Their replacements are rookie left-handed reliever Jin Uk Kim and former MLBer Seunghwan Oh, arguably the best reliever in Korea’s history. Jin-Uk is a bit of an odd choice, however, as his stats haven’t been very good this year. Also of note is that they did not add a new 2B to replace Park. Korea is facing other COVID-19 related issues: the first of their warm-up games, which would have been against a team of under-24 KBO All-Stars, has been called off due to pandemic restrictions.
Two members of Team Mexico have tested positive for COVID-19 and will not be making the trip. Hector Velazquez and Sammy Solis tested positive on Sunday before the team was set to leave for Tokyo, and now the team is in quarantine while they await further tests. It isn’t clear if Solis and Velazquez are being re-tested in case of a false positive and may end up making the trip, and I haven’t found anything yet to suggest who (if anyone) will replace them. The bigger question is what might happen should a large portion of the team have COVID. Would they forfeit all their games? Would they be allowed to quickly add a bunch of new players? These are some of the issues facing all the sports in this pandemic Olympics.
Team USA has been playing exhibition games against the USA National Collegiate Team to prepare for Tokyo. While obviously they are college kids, they are hardly slouches and most of them will likely go on to have professional careers. The Olympians won the 7-inning Game 1 8-3 on Sunday behind good days at the plate by Eddy Alvarez (3-4, HR, 2 RBI, SB) and Patrick Kivlehan (2-3, 2B, HR, 3 RBI). Scott Kazmir had 5 IP giving up 3 hits (one a home run to the University of Arizona’s Jacob Berry) and 2 ER while striking out 9. Game 2 was much closer as a pitcher’s duel took place, with Team USA edging the college team 1-0 thanks to a 6th-inning RBI by Alvarez. The teams are set to finish their exhibition series today at 1 p.m.
Team Israel, meanwhile, has been barnstorming through the East Coast. They have gone 6-2 against an eclectic bunch of amateur teams ranging from the FDNY baseball team to all-stars from the Cal Ripken College League. They have one more warmup game remaining.
I’ll have more on Olympic baseball as the start of that tournament nears.
Appearing in an Olympic baseball tournament for the first time, Mexico is a serious medal contender. They are managed by former Major League infielder Benji Gil, who now manages in the Mexican League. The roster can be found en españolhere.
About the Country: Gaining recognized independence in 1821 (11 years after it was declared), Mexico is built where the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs once lived. Mexico is home to a rapidly-modernizing economy, the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere (Mexico City, beating out New York), and a diverse ecology. However, it has also had to deal with inequality and crime, particularly related to the drug trade.
Baseball History: Although it is not nearly as popular in Mexico as futbol, baseball still holds a long and storied history there. Nobody is quite sure how it was first introduced, although it is likely the Americans were involved in some way. Notable events in Mexico’s baseball history include the formation of the Mexican League in 1925, the back-to-back victories of a Monterrey team in the 1957 and 1958 Little League World Series, and Fernando Valenzuela‘s debut with the Dodgers in the early 1980s.
Olympic History: Mexico has never participated in the Olympics in baseball.
Outside of baseball, Mexico debuted at the Olympics in 1900, but didn’t return until 1924. They’ve taken part in every summer games since, including hosting the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. They have also had sporadic participation in the winter games. Mexico has seen its most success in track, boxing, taekwondo, and diving. The top medalists in Mexican history are diver Joaquín Capilla, equestrian Humberto Mariles, and taekwondo practitioner María Espinoza.
Road to Tokyo: Mexico qualified for the Olympics through the 2019 Premier12 tournament by finishing as the best-finishing team from the Americas thanks to a bronze medal upset against Team USA.
Notable Names: The Mexican National Team possesses several former MLB players from Mexico or of Mexican descent. The most notable, no doubt, is Adrian Gonzalez. Born in San Diego but raised in Tijuana, the five-time all-star is now 39 and a member of the Mexican League team in Guadalajara.
Notable MLB experienced pitchers include but are not limited to Oliver Perez (now playing in Mexico), Manny Banuelos (who most recently was in Taiwan’s CPBL but who has returned to the Mexican League ahead of the Olympics), Hector Velazquez (now in the Astros system), Sammy Solis (now in Mexico) and Fernando Salas (who has a 0.00 ERA in 19.1 IP in Mexico this season).
Ones to Watch: As expected, most of those without MLB experience on Team Mexico are active in the minors or the Mexican League (this is also the case for those with MLB experience, of course).
Joey Meneses, for example, has spent his career bouncing between Mexico, Japan, and affiliated baseball, winning the International League MVP award in 2018. The 29-year-old 1B/OF is currently playing in the Red Sox system. Another outfielder, Jonathan Jones, is a 31-year-old was a member of the all-tournament team in 2019’s Premier12. Now playing in Mexico, Jones also has experience in the affiliated minors, independent ball, and even a brief stint in Australia. A third outfielder, right-hander Jose Cardona, got as high as AAA but has now been in Mexico the last few years. Cardona has been hitting over .300 this season between two teams. In the infield, middle-infielder Isaac Rodriguez is a 30-year-old veteran of the Mexican League who is hitting .389/.455/.520 this season
Among the pitchers without MLB experience, notables include righty Manny Barreda, who joined the Orioles organization this season (primarily in AAA) after several years in Mexico after his initial affiliated career flamed out. Another notable is lefty starter Juan Oramas, who has a 3.17 ERA in 10 starts in Mexico this season. Like Banuelos, Teddy Stankiewicz (who is Mexican on his mother’s side) was active in the CPBL but has moved to the Mexican League ahead of the Olympics. Daniel Duarte is a 24-year-old righty in the Reds system, while Carlos Bustamante(3.20 ERA in 19.2 IP in Mexico this season) will be another right-hander out of the bullpen.
Outlook: The selection for this team have not been without controversy, with some saying that Benji Gil overly-favored players who have played for his Culiacan club. Regardless, Mexico is a dangerous but likely outgunned team in these Olympics, and would likely fall behind Japan, Team USA, the Dominican and perhaps Korea (in no particular order) in a power rankings ahead of the games. However, in a field this small and with a playing format so strange, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they’ll pull out a medal.
You can find all the current Olympic Baseball previews here.