SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - For many, baseball is life in the Caribbean and Latin America, a source of national pride in international competition. For the 2012 Olympics, they will have to live without their favorite sport.
The IOC decision to drop baseball and softball from the London Games left a trail of sadness, anger and resolution, extending from Puerto Rico to Cuba, from the Dominican Republic to Panama, where baseball reigns and is considered a ticket to Olympic competition.
“It was a shock,” Chicago White Sox pitcher Jose Contreras, who played Cuba in the 2000 Olympic Games, said through a translator. “Not having the Olympics will be a big hit in Cuba and for the fans in Cuba.”
“That’s the biggest stage they play on, they prepare for four years to play in one tournament. And that’s like the World Series for people here,” he said before Friday night’s game against Oakland.
Baseball was a demonstration sport at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and gained medal status at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Puerto Rico won the bronze medal in 1988 and finished fifth in 1992.
“There are countries that don’t have the opportunity to compete in other sports and play for medals, and in that sense the Latin American countries are the most affected” by this decision, Puerto Rico Baseball Federation tournament director Julio Cora said.
Former Texas Rangers pitcher Edwin Correa, president of Puerto Rico’s Baseball Academy, said baseball “unites” Latin American and the Caribbean, and its exclusion from the Olympics leaves a void in places with a long tradition in the game.
“I think they’re being very unfair,” he said.
Jose Manuel Correa managed the Puerto Rican team in both Olympics, and remembers the jubilation after winning the bronze medal in Seoul, where the United States finished first.
“It was the only medal out of the Puerto Rican delegation, and even though it was exhibition, we celebrated big-time,” Correa recalled. “I also remember the Americans, Tino (Martinez) and (Robin) Ventura, they also celebrated.”
“Now it’s very frustrating, because all players aspire to the top, and the Olympics are the top, and they won’t be there,” he added.
Some, like Cuban Baseball Federation president Carlos Rodriguez and Panamanian Olympic Committee vice president Fernando Samaniego blamed the absence of major league players for the decision by the International Olympic Committee in Singapore.
“Those who bear most of the blame are the owners of the professional leagues who refuse to free up their ballplayers to compete,” Rodriguez told The Associated Press.
Cuba is the undisputed heavyweight of international baseball, having won three of the four gold medals since 1992. The Cubans won gold last year in Athens, beating Australia in the final. Now the Cubans’ focus is on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, perhaps their last chance to win a gold medal in the sport.
“I’m going to train even harder, do everything possible to make sure Cuba gets to the 2008 Games. That gold medal is more important than ever. We cannot lose it,” said first baseman Alexander Mayerta of Havana’s Industriales.
“The greatest pride is to be an Olympic champion,” he added.
Samaniego said the vote by the IOC is reasonable because the “major leagues do not come with their best players, and there is great difficulty in raising the level as in the case of basketball.”
Others, including Dominican Baseball Federation president Hector Pereyra and Mexican Olympic Committee president Felipe Munoz, prefer to work toward getting baseball back in the Olympics after London.
“This the moment to start the race to return to the Olympic stage in 2016,” Pereyra said.
The American-trained Animal Kingdom, winner of the Kentucky Derby in 2011 and the $10-million Dubai World Cup this year, is set to be retired to stud after running the Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday.
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