For the first time in 13 years, baseball will be played in the Olympic Games.
Baseball hasn’t been included since the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, when the U.S. baseball team earned a bronze medal.
Of the 24-man roster heading to Tokyo, one player has already made it to the Olympic podium—but it was without a baseball glove.
Eddy Alvarez competed in speed skating at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. He and his three teammates earned the silver medal in the 5,000-meter relay.
The 31-year-old infielder in the Marlins system says he won’t be happy leaving the Tokyo Olympics with anything but gold.
“This feels like a redemption trip for me,” he says. “When you are so close to the win and when you have to stand on the podium and have to listen to someone’s else anthem, it leaves just a little bit of that bittersweet feeling, and this trip is like a second chance “
Longtime MLB manager Mike Scioscia, who is coaching Team USA, said Alvarez is a spark plug whose prior Olympics experience is far from the only reason he's playing baseball in Tokyo. Team USA won all four of its games at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Florida. Alvarez went 3-for-11 (.273) with two doubles and a triple in those four games. He started the final three contests at second base, and he pinch hit and played second in the opener.
“His Olympic experience was with skates on, so I don’t how much that translates to what we are doing,” Scioscia says. “But I think the overall understanding of what the Olympics are about is something that Eddy brings. In the qualifiers, there is no doubt about what he brought every day.”
Alvarez is one of 14 players on the team who have previous experience in the majors, but none of them are currently in The Show. MLB is not allowing players from any team's 40-man roster to participate, giving Team USA a mix of past-their-prime veterans (Todd Frazier, David Robertson) and exciting prospects (Joe Ryan, Rays; Simeon Woods Richardson, Blue Jays). Alvarez falls somewhere between the two groups of players. He had a taste of the majors in 2020 when he played 12 games for the Marlins, hitting .189 in 37 at bats. He's played 18 games for their Triple-A Jacksonville affiliate this year.
One of those veterans is 37-year-old Scott Kazmir, whose Olympic presence may all be thanks to a game of catch with a friend. A three-time All-Star, Kazmir made his MLB debut in 2004 with Tampa Bay, which at the time was still the Devil Rays. He was one of the better pitchers in the American League over the next four seasons and, in 2008, he helped pitch the Rays to their first World Series appearance. In the years since, he's pitched for both Los Angeles teams, the Astros, A's and Cleveland. He thought his baseball career ended when he was released by the Braves in March 2018 after trying to make the team out of Spring Training.
Kazmir said he was “enjoying retired life” and not thinking of returning to baseball when reliever Kendall Graveman, then with the A's, needed a buddy to play catch with during the 2019 All-Star break. Tossing the ball around reminded Kazmir of how much he loved playing, and he worked hard to get back on the mound.
“Take everything day-by-day and just kind of build,” he says for advice. “I feel like that’s kind of how I got back to the big leagues is just really not thinking too far ahead, not getting overwhelmed with everything and just try to keep working hard every single day.”
His hard work paid off. The Giants signed him on Feb. 26, 2021. The left-handed pitcher had a 6.43 ERA for the three appearances, two of those starts, with the Giants this year before being reassigned to Triple-A Sacramento.
Throughout the 2021 season, Kazmir kept in contact with USA Baseball to make sure they knew he wanted to be on the roster if he wasn’t playing for San Francisco. Sure enough, the Giants took him off their 40-man roster in June. The demotion was actually a blessing. Instead of pitching in Triple A, Kazmir was headed to the Olympics. On July 2, he got the call that he needed to pack for Tokyo.
“I just kind of kept making them aware that I'm very interested in the opportunity,” he says. "To be able to represent my country in the Olympics, it's something that you dream about as a kid."
One of the younger players to join Kazmir and Alvarez on the team is 22-year-old Shane Baz. The right-handed pitcher says he knows how memorable this experience will be.
“The chance to be an Olympian is probably once in a lifetime,” he says. “The biggest honor I can do on a baseball field honestly is to be putting on red, white, and blue and trying to go win a gold medal for your country.”
Boz was taken as the No. 12 pick in the first round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Pirates. He was traded to the Rays in August 2018 and currently plays for their Triple-A affiliate, the Durham Bulls.
“Hopefully I can bring the gold medal back to Cypress,” Baz says.
Scioscia said USA Baseball, a national governing body for amateur baseball, did a great job of compiling a roster filled with mentally strong and aggressive players. He managed the Angels for 19 seasons, including when they won their only World Series, in 2002. He also was a big-league catcher, spending all 13 years of his career with the Dodgers and winning two World Series.
“Our goal is to win an Olympic gold medal," Scioscia says. "Now is not the time to talk about that. Now is the time to focus on the step-by-step, one-run-at-a-time approach.”
Team USA is one of six teams to qualify for the Olympics, along with Israel, South Korea, the Dominican Republic, Japan and Mexico. The U.S. team has two guaranteed games against Israel and South Korea on July 30 and 31, before the elimination games from Aug. 1-7.
Scioscia says the US team has some "tough teams" to face in Tokyo, with host country Japan ranked as the best in the world, according to the World Baseball Softball Confederation.
The other teams vying for the gold in baseball is proof that the sport is beloved beyond the borders of the United States, he says.
“I know that there are places in the world where they couldn’t tell the difference between a bat and a ball,” he says. “They just really have no interest in baseball. But I think for the majority of countries where baseball has planted and made roots it’s a huge part of their culture.”
Despite baseball’s popularity, the game will not be included at the 2024 Olympics in Paris. The sport could return to the Olympics in the 2028 Los Angeles Games, but only if the Olympic Organizing Committee and the International Olympic Committee allow it.
“I would hope," Scioscia says, "that every country that would host the Olympics moving forward would understand the importance of putting baseball in the Olympics and having baseball as part of the competition."