Three Out: Olympic Baseball Qualifier will not have a full court

For an Australian baseball player, reaching the major leagues in the United States is a rare feat. Only 32 players born in Australia made it, according to baseball reference, with Chicago White Sox closest, Liam Hendriks, the most notable current player. But in a country where baseball is not a mainstream sport, reaching the Olympics is a more widely recognized achievement.

“It has always been my goal to make the major leagues first and foremost,” said Tim Atherton, a former minor league pitcher for the Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics, on a phone call from his home. in Shellharbour, about two hours south of Sydney. . “But being able to have the chance to become an Olympian would have validated the last 20 years of sacrifice, hard work and training.”

Atherton, who has competed in other international competitions, will not be so lucky: Australia will not take part in the last Olympic qualification which begins in Mexico on Tuesday. Neither China nor Taiwan. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and a host of related challenges ranging from health and safety concerns to government regulations, the final qualifying event for Tokyo – originally scheduled for Taiwan and six countries – will have just three participants. .

As organizers of the Tokyo Olympics prepare for the start of the Summer Games next month, qualifying for baseball has highlighted the difficulties of hosting international sporting events during the pandemic. Australia, which withdrawn two weeks ago, quoted Glenn Williams, General Manager of Baseball Australia, called “insurmountable” challenges given a late change of location precipitated by virus problems.

“I was speechless and then I was angry for being like ‘Why?’,” Atherton, 31, said of his reaction when told Australia would skip the tournament.

“I didn’t sleep well for a week,” he added. “I got really exhausted and ended up getting sick, the body sort of succumbing to disappointment. The why and what if are the two most difficult things to overcome.

The last place in the Tokyo Games, where baseball returns to the Olympics for the first time since 2008, will go to Venezuela, the Netherlands or the Dominican Republic. These three countries are class eighth, ninth and tenth in the world. But Taiwan and Australia were considered better, placed fourth and sixth, and they liked their chances of claiming the remaining spot.

“I’m sad about this because Australia are a strong team and Taiwan is also great,” Riccardo Fraccari, president of the World Confederation of Baseball and Softball, the governing body of sport, said at a telephone interview. Some sports, like boxing, have had their qualifications canceled, but Fraccari said: “What is important, in my opinion, is to have a qualification on the pitch and not with the rankings.”

Still, he said he understood the obstacles Taiwan and Australia faced. Taichung City was originally the host of the qualifying match, but less than a month before the matches scheduled for June 16, cases increased in Taiwan and the government imposed a travel ban on foreigners. which extended beyond the start date of the qualifying match. Therefore the WBSC has withdrawn the event and scrambled to find a new host.

“I haven’t slept for a week,” Fraccari said. “Can you imagine moving a competition with officials and everything in five days from one continent to another? “

Fraccari said the WBSC were considering hosting the final qualifier in Florida – where they had successfully hosted the six-team Americas qualifiers from May 31 to June 5 without any virus outbreaks – but finding land at the last minute was a problem. He said Mexico had solved many problems and thanked government officials in the country, such as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a dedicated baseball fan, for hosting the event.

But the new host city, Puebla, about two hours from Mexico City, was only announced as a new site on May 28, leaving Taiwan and Australia – who have each won a silver medal in baseball at the Olympics – little time to adjust.

A week later, the Chinese Taipei Baseball Association announced it was withdrawing from final qualifying. the statement he posted online confirming the decision included two charts showing the increase in cases and deaths on the island. Taiwan also said her team were unable to train due to home restrictions and she was concerned for the safety of her players and coaches in Mexico, where more than 3,000 new cases are reported every day.

“In the end, the mountain was too big to move,” the Taiwan team said.

The China baseball team had withdrawn from the event weeks earlier, when it was yet to take place in Taiwan.

After Taiwan’s withdrawal, Atherton, co-captain of the Australian national team, said his country’s chances of reaching the Olympics, which begin July 28 for baseball, had improved. But the qualifying move to Mexico, in fact, made things more difficult.

“Attending the final Olympic qualification in a world of Covid was always going to present significant challenges,” said Williams, who won a silver medal with Australia in 2004 before leading Baseball Australia, in a statement. “The planning for Taiwan was extensive and with the late change of location and dates these plans became obsolete. We worked on several options and scenarios, but the logistical challenges of providing a safe environment for the group were overwhelming. “

Williams said there were too many unanswered questions about player health and logistics, and moving a large group across two continents with limited flight options was complicated. Atherton said the team faced the prospect of spending double their travel budget to get to Puebla via Los Angeles and Mexico City. He also said the team feared someone in the travel group would test positive for the coronavirus and need to stay in Mexico and under unknown care.

Most importantly, there were government restrictions and Olympic protocols that the team had to adhere to. Even though Atherton said almost everyone on the team has been vaccinated, Australian rules mandate a 14-day quarantine for all travelers from abroad.

“Even though Team Australia managed to win the event, the timing did not allow the team to complete the quarantine in Australia and meet the entry conditions at the Tokyo Games, ”said Williams.

Atherton praised Team Australia for exploring all options, and said he understood the WBSC’s reasoning for moving forward with qualifying. But he lamented that two of the top-ranked teams in the world – Taiwan and Australia – would miss out on the Olympics.

One of Atherton’s dreams was to see his three boys watch him play the Games. The next time baseball is at the Summer Olympics is 2028 in Los Angeles. Atherton, who plays professionally in Australia, will then be 38 years old. He said his disappointment could help fuel that goal. But for some of his teammates, the Tokyo Olympics might have been their only chance.

“It’s not clear if I will ever be able to wear green and gold again,” Travis Blackley, a 38-year-old former major league pitcher, wrote on Twitter. “Not how I imagined it would end!”

Despite the wave of emotions now, Atherton has said he does not want to feel sorry for himself as so many people around the world have lost more than games to the virus. Watching the final qualifying could be tough, he said, but he’ll be on the line next month.

“Dude, I’m definitely going to watch the Olympics,” he said. “I am first and foremost a fan of sports and baseball, then a third Olympian not to be salty.”

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