Baseball is back in the Olympics — here’s how Canada can qualify

Baseball’s days as an Olympic sport appeared to be over when it was dropped after the 2008 Games in Beijing. But host countries now have a say in what’s included beyond the permanent sports, and baseball is big in Japan. So it’s back on the program for the Tokyo Olympics next summer.

It looks like a short-lived return, though: organizers of the Paris 2024 Olympics left baseball off their list of sports they want to add. They’d rather have surfing, climbing, skateboarding and breakdancing. The International Olympic Committee will make the final call late next year, but it doesn’t look good.

That adds urgency to the Canadian national team’s quest to qualify for the Olympics for the third straight time and take another shot at winning its first medal. It’s going to be tougher this time, though. The tournament was cut from eight teams to six, and Canada is currently ranked 10th in the world. Plus, two spots are already filled: No. 1-ranked Japan is already in as the host country, and Israel will represent the Africa/Europe region after winning its qualifying tournament.

Not to get too cute, but Canada is now in a three-strikes-and-you’re-out situation:

Strike 1: The WBSC Premier 12 tournament

The WBSC is the international governing body for baseball and softball. The Premier 12 is a tournament for — you guessed it — the top 12 countries in the world. It’s happening right now. While it’s meant to stand on its own — there’s a $5.2-million US prize pool and the winning team gets $1.5 million — this year’s event is also acting as an Olympic qualifier. It will decide two of the remaining four spots. Canada is eligible for one of them.

The tournament works like this: The 12 teams are divided into three groups. Canada’s group is playing in Seoul. The other teams in it are South Korea (ranked No. 3 in the world), Cuba (No. 5) and Australia (No. 7). The top two teams in each group advance to the next round, where they each play the four teams that weren’t in their original group. When that’s over, the teams with the two best records against opponents that made it to this round play for the championship. The third- and fourth-best play for bronze.

The two Olympic spots go to the top finisher from the Americas region (that’s the one Canada belongs to) and the top finisher from the Asia/Oceania region (excluding Japan, which is already in as the Olympic host).

Canada is off to a decent start: it upset Cuba 3-0 in its opener before losing 3-1 to South Korea. That leaves a big first-round finale against Australia, which is 0-2. Even if it wins, Canada’s fate could turn on what happens in the game between South Korea (2-0) and Cuba (1-1). The Canada-Australia game is Thursday at 10 p.m. ET and you can watch it live here.

Ex-Phillies pitcher Phillippe Aumont is one of the guys you might remember on the Canadian national team. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)

Strike 2: The Americas qualifying tournament

This takes place in March. Eight teams will be there, and one of the two remaining Olympic spots is available. All seven Americas teams currently playing in the Premier 12 have an automatic entry in this tournament. But of course the top finisher at the Premier 12 doesn’t have to play in this because it will have already clinched an Olympic spot.

The winner of this tournament is in the Olympics. The second- and third-place teams get one last shot.

Strike 3: The final world qualifying tournament

Six teams will fight for the final Olympic spot at this last-chance event in early 2020. Only the winner gets in.

Based on the results of various regional qualifiers, we already know two of the teams will be China and the Netherlands. Another will be either South Korea or Taiwan — whichever doesn’t qualify via the Premier 12. The field rounds out with the winner of next year’s Oceania qualifier plus, as mentioned, the second- and third-place teams from the Americas qualifier.

Other stuff to know

One of the issues with Olympic baseball is that it happens during the Major League Baseball season and MLB doesn’t pause to let the best players go. That’s part of the reason why Cuba is the best country in the history of Olympic baseball (it’s won three of the five gold medals, plus two silver). The Communist regime doesn’t allow people to leave the country. So, with the exception of defectors, most of its best baseball players compete in Cuba’s domestic league, which doesn’t overlap with the Olympics. It’s similar to how the Soviet Union dominated Olympic hockey in the Iron Curtain era, before the NHL allowed its players to participate.

That being said, you might recognize some former major leaguers on Team Canada. In the opening win over Cuba, ex-Phillies pitcher Phillippe Aumont threw eight shutout innings. Ex-Blue Jay Michael Saunders, who put off retirement to play for the national team, drove in one of the runs. Pitcher Scott Richmond and outfielder Dalton Pompey have also played for the Jays — the latter as recently as 2018. And the manager will be familiar to fans of the ’80s Jays: Ernie Whitt.

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