Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 5, 2021

Hope And Belief, Playing For Gold

For all the focus on the medal count, exemplified by the tracker prominently displayed on the front page of ESPN’s website, the real stories of every Olympics are about people, some of whom go home with gold, and some of whom, like Krystsina Tsimanouskaya of Belarus, don’t get to go home at all.  Fans in this country were reminded of the power of personal Olympic stories Thursday, when almost 5,000 miles from the nearest major league ballpark, the U.S. Olympic baseball squad took the field in Yokohama for its semifinal showdown against South Korea.  Both teams had one loss in the double-elimination knockout phase of the Olympic tournament.  That meant the winner would advance to the championship game against Japan and thus be guaranteed no worse than a silver medal, while the loser would play the Dominican Republic in the bronze medal game.    

Unlike many of the sports that are now contested at these quadrennial gatherings, baseball has been around since before the revival of the Games in 1896.  Despite that, the sport has a limited Olympic history.  It first appeared in 1904 in St. Louis, when the Summer Games crossed the Atlantic for the first time.  It was then played as a demonstration sport, without medals being awarded, just a handful of times over the ensuing decades until finally receiving official recognition at the 1992 Barcelona Games.  Baseball remained part of the Olympics for less than twenty years and was voted out by the IOC prior to the 2012 Games in London.  The sport returned this year only at the insistence of the Tokyo Organizing Committee, and because each host nation is allowed to add a few events of its choosing.

Perhaps because of that spotty history, and surely in part because the timing of the Summer Games coincides with a major league season that at both ends tests the limits of playable weather in many cities, MLB has never considered a suspension of play that would allow its players to participate in the Olympics.  Thus, the country that is the home of the Great Game won only one gold and two bronze medals at the five previous Olympiads at which medals were awarded.  The roster that traveled to Japan this year was typical – a mix of former major leaguers no longer contractually tied to a franchise, and minor league players allowed to take part by the clubs that hold their contracts – has-beens and not-yets, in the words of ESPN. 

That means a few names that devoted fans recognize, like manager Mike Scioscia, who guided the L.A. Angels for nineteen years, infielder Todd Frazier, twice an All-Star with the Cincinnati Reds, and pitchers Scott Kazmir, David Robertson and Edwin Jackson, who combined have more than 4,300 regular season innings and nearly fifty postseason appearances at the major league level.  But it also means that even the most loyal follower of the Great Game couldn’t tell all the players without a scorecard.  For many of the young men on temporary assignment from their AA, AAA, or in a few cases international clubs, the pursuit of Olympic hardware is also a chance to shine on a larger stage.  And one can be certain that every veteran major leaguer wearing a USA uniform is hoping his performance at the Games earns him one more chance to don a more familiar one.

Whether or not that comes to pass, it was a good day for the hope that springs eternal when Joe Ryan held South Korea to a single run over 4 1/3 innings, and it became an even better one when four relievers allowed just one more tally the rest of the way.  South Korea kept the score close until the 6th, when Team USA, leading 2-1 at the start of the frame, exploded for five runs.  Frazier worked a 12-pitch at-bat into a leadoff walk to get things started, and by the time the side was retired Mark Kolozsvary, Jack Lopez, and Eddy Alvarez had each driven in a run, and Tyler Austin had plated two.

The 7-2 final put the U.S. into the gold medal game for just the second time in baseball’s brief Olympic history.  On Saturday Team USA will face Japan, and the home country will be favored.  But whatever the outcome of that contest, the U.S. is assured of a medal, so the final out of Thursday’s game put second baseman Alvarez into the record books.  For this was not the 31-year-old’s first Olympic experience.  The son of Cuban immigrants, Alvarez was born in Miami and took to skating even before baseball.  He medaled at the 2009 World Junior Short Track Championships, but was ill during the 2010 Olympic Trials and didn’t qualify for the U.S. team.  A year later, while playing college baseball, he was diagnosed with multiple tendon tears in both knees and underwent surgery that should have ended his skating career, and possibly his baseball one as well.

But against long odds Alvarez was at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, where he was one of the U.S. skaters who won silver in the 5,000-meter relay.  He then turned back to baseball, where he has labored in the minor league systems of the White Sox and Marlins since 2014.  In last year’s pandemic-shortened big-league season, Alvarez wore a Marlins uniform for twelve games, batting .189 with a .485 OPS.  Those are forgettable numbers, and who’s to say if he’ll ever get another chance in The Show.  But he improved on those stats enough to make Scioscia’s team, and after Saturday, Alvarez will be one of just six athletes, and only the third American, to win medals in both the Summer and Winter Games.  After that outcome was certain, Alvarez sat in the dugout and cried, overcome with emotion at the thought of the unlikely path he has traveled, and of the sacrifices his family made along the way.

It was a small moment, and a deeply personal one.  Whatever color medal the U.S. baseball team is awarded this weekend, whether Frazier or Robertson or any of the other has-beens manage to wrangle a free agent contract with some team for the stretch drive, whether Ryan or one of the other not-yets makes it to the big leagues, or whether Eddy Alvarez gets another call-up, it was a moment he will count as precious for all his days.  Strip away all the commercialism and media hype, and it’s what the Olympics is, and always should be, about.


Responses

  1. I hope you’re keeping a record of these. This piece is one of your best.DonSent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone


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