For the first time since 2008 baseball (and softball) are back at the Olympics thanks to the host committee’s petition to include the events under the local significance exemption. That means the sports are back on a one-off basis unless a future host site petitions for their inclusion on the program. Both sports ended up dropped largely because of the perceived lack of competitiveness on an international level. While softball always saw the best players competing, MLB refused to release players citing the inability to accommodate a two week break in the middle of the season. While South Korea, Japan, and Cuba fielded the best players from their domestic leagues, the US and other countries relied on a mix of minor league prospects, college players, and professionals at the tail end of their careers. In Tokyo South Korea and Japan are fielding teams filled with current Korean and Nippon League players while the US, Israel, Mexico, and Dominican Republic have that mix of young prospects and old timers, meaning it’s prime time, as David Roth would say, to remember some guys.
Israel is the upstart of the tournament and their biggest player is Ian Kinsler, who had a run of great seasons for Rangers a decade ago before playing for the Tigers, Angels, Red Sox, and Padres. He’s one of 12 players in the history of the league to have multiple seasons of 30 steals and 30 home runs and managed to win two Gold Gloves and a World Series with the Red Sox. Kinsler was one of the core players that enabled the Rangers to have their few seasons of relevance at the start of the decade before they faded back into mediocrity. Israel is also fielding Danny Valencia, who bounced around the majors and minors league for much of the last decade along with catcher Ryan Lavarnway who actually had a few plate appearances for the Cleveland soon-to-be-Guardians this season.
The North American teams, though, have some quality guys to remember. The Dominican Republic is fielding Melky Cabrera, who is famously scared of thunder, and José Bautista, of bat flip fame. Joey Bats has been quiet at the plate in the two games so far but he’s still got some power in the arm, making a play at home against Mexico. Emilio Bonifácio and Juan Francisco are also two guys you probably have some vague memory of from early in the last decade. Mexico has a lot of players from the Mexican League but they’ve got some quality guys in Óliver Pérez, Fernando Salas, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Goins, Efrén Navarro and Ramiro Peña. Mexico’s best guy, though, is Adrián González, 5-time all-star, 4-time Gold Glove winner, 2-time silver slugger, and the cover player for MLB The Show 2012.
Remembering a guy for the United States starts all the at the time with manager, Mike Scioscia, most known for winning one World Series and then parlaying that into a decade and a half of decent finishes in the weak AL West that meant almost nothing in in the playoffs. He’s managing some quality guys in Nick Martinez, Tim Federowicz, and Tyler Austin. He’s also got Todd Frazier who parlayed his good years in Cincinnati into a journeyman career that ended this spring with him batting .086 for the Pirates. But where the US really shines with guys is in pitching. Edwin Jackson played for basically half of of the teams in the majors while throwing a no-hitter and winning the World Series with the Cardinals in 2011 (sorry to Ian Kinsler here). Remember Scott Kazmir? He’s here too. But my favorite guy to remember is Dave Robertson. Robertson was one of the Yankees' setup guys along with the likes of Joba Chamberlain a decade ago before he switched to closer following Mariano Rivera’s retirement and then moved to the White Sox. He came back to the Yankees in a trade that included Todd Frazier before tearing his ACL while pitching with the Phillies.
Congratulations to all the guys.
Five teams have won softball medals: US, Japan, Australia, China, and Canada. The US, Japan, and Australia account for nearly, 90% of all medals won. In baseball, Cuba, the US, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and Taiwan have won medals. Cuba, the US, South Korea, and Japan also account for nearly 90% of all medals won.
Pros were officially banned from the baseball competition for the 1992 and 1996 Olympics but Cuba fielded teams full of Cuban League players because most worked second jobs. The 2008 Olympics rosters are chock full of guys to remember.
The biggest name on the Japanese squad for non-followers of the NPB is Masahiro Tanaka who is back in Japan after playing six seasons with the Yankees. South Korea has three players with MLB experience, Seung-hwan Oh being the only one with substantially more than a season in the US.