International pastime

November 11, 2003

AT THE 2004 Olympics in Athens next summer, the U.S. baseball team won't defend its gold medal - stunning evidence of the internationalization of America's pastime.

The U.S. squad got knocked out of the Olympics by finishing last weekend behind Cuba and Canada - Canada! - in regional play. Mexico upset a U.S. team of mostly minor-leaguers, 2-1, on a ninth-inning home run. The humiliation wasn't exactly unprecedented: In 1992 and 1996, Cuba took the first two Olympic baseball golds.

Still, say it ain't so, Joe. Imagine Olympic baseball without an American team. Well, it would be like Olympic basketball without an American dream team. Except for one big difference: The U.S. team can't pick up top major-leaguers because their season conflicts with the Olympics.

The possible silver lining is that, with no U.S. team, there should be a wider scramble for baseball medals at Athens - and broader worldwide interest. Maybe enough to keep the sport from being eliminated from the Olympics, as the International Olympic Committee threatened last year.

It may have escaped the IOC's notice, but big-league baseball - a game inextricably bound with the American identity - already has gone global. When the 2003 season opened, foreign-born players from 17 countries comprised about 28 percent of major-league rosters (up from 10 percent in 1970). Two-thirds of the American League's starting nine in this year's All-Star Game weren't born in the United States.

As to the future, almost half the 6,000 U.S. minor-leaguers are foreign born, about half of them from the Dominican Republic alone but even some from Italy, China and Nigeria. In a decade or so, some predict, U.S.-born players could be in the minority in the majors. Major-league baseball long has run Caribbean camps, and now the Montreal team may be moving to Mexico.

It's the most American of stories: the export of U.S. invention, the import of eager talent from all over the world. So if American baseball fans are smarting over losing the Olympic gold so early in the game, they also can look forward to a world of baseball.

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