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Beijing

For students of international relations, secret agents and troublemakers, there really was only one place to be in Beijing on Friday and that was Wukesong's baseball venue.

Opening the day's action on Field One was the game between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China, or Chinese Taipei as it is known during the Games, or Taiwan as it is known everywhere else.

And an hour later, on the Main Field next door, we had Cuba playing its friendly neighbour the United States of America.

The fixtures computer can be a cheeky monkey sometimes, can't it?

Chinese Taipei's Lin Che-Hsuan, left, is tagged out at third by China's third baseman Sun Wei

China and Taiwan have been eyeballing each other ever since Mao Zedong's communists forced Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists to flee to the island formerly known as Formosa in 1949.

That followed over 20 years of on-off war for control of China. Today's game of grown-up rounders was played by nations still legally at war.

Such nastiness seemed a world away at Wukesong, though. With the sun beating down, the (mainly Taiwanese) crowd in good spirits and the game locked at 3-3 after nine innings, this was no occasion for discussing such matters as who really is the legitimate government of China.

Far more concerning was what happened when the game reached its second extra inning, the 11th.

I thought I must have nodded off when I looked up from my computer to see Chien-Ming Chang at bat with Taiwanese runners on first and second.

How on earth did they get there? Have I missed a couple of batters? Was that Genghis Khan vodka in Suzie Wong's really necessary?

China managed to get themselves out of that jam without conceding a run.

And then it happened all over again. There I was scribbling some notes when I looked up to see Chinese runners already on first and second.

It was at this point I realised the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) had been tinkering with the rules.

Having been voted out of the Olympic party with its cuddly cousin softball in 2005, baseball is in a hurry to leave.

Any game that reaches the 11th inning in Beijing will most probably end there as runs are practically guaranteed. Runners are placed on first and second and the coach can restart his batting line-up to get his best hitters at the plate.

Perhaps the biggest surprise here was that China and Taiwan failed to make the most of this helping hand in the 11th. They made up for it in the 12th, though.

First, Taiwan scored four runs to take a 7-3 lead and send their supporters into a thunderstix-banging frenzy.

They weren't so noisy 10 minutes later when my old friend Chien-Ming Chang's throw from right field hit a team-mate (who should really have been paying attention) and allowed a seventh and eighth Chinese run to be scored, ending the game.

Cue wild celebrations from the Chinese team.

Lefebvre, a former player and manager in Major League Baseball, was beside himself.

"I've played in a World Series and a lot of great games but today was the most exciting I've ever been involved in," he said.

"Today's victory is huge for China."

Not just Chinese baseball. China.

"It's one of those victories that we can look back at in time and say 'this really turned the programme around'," he added.

Whether Lefebvre is right about this win lighting a fire under Chinese baseball is debatable. He and his team are only really here because the hosts wanted to compete in every event at their Games.

China has no pedigree in the sport and with baseball joining tug-of-war and pigeon shooting as ex-Olympic events it is difficult to see a future for it in the People's Republic.

The key factor will not be this win, or any other success Lefebvre's charges achieve in this tournament, it will be in persuading the IOC to reinstate the sport as an Olympic event in time for the 2016 Games.

That vote takes place in Copenhagen in 2009 and Lefebvre can already count on the support of one IOC member, Cuba's Reynaldo Gonzalez Lopez.

Baseball is a banker for communist Cuba. The Caribbean island has won three of the four Olympic baseball competitions and come second in the other. Anything other than a fourth gold here would be a surprise.

Cuba's reliever Pedro Luis Lazo, left, is congratulated by catcher Eriel Sanhez after their 5-4 win over the United States

But then that could be it. The IOC appears to have fallen out of love with a sport it only introduced in 1992 and baseball has not done much to win that affection back.

No MLB franchise has allowed any of its players to take part in the Games, depriving the US team of any real chance of success and numerous other countries of their best players.

It is a stance that typifies the home of baseball's attitude towards the international game. America's gold-medal performance in 2000 is a rare success on the global stage.

So it was hardly surprising when they lost to Cuba here. What was surprising was that this game also went to 11 innings after a 3-3 tie in regulation.

The Cubans made the most of the two-man head start and scored two runs with a single to right field. Needing two of their own to prolong the game the US could only find one, giving the Cubans a 5-4 win.

But the game's main talking point was not another American defeat to a country they continue to impose sanctions on, although that was mentioned, it was the US coach Davey Johnson's claim that Pedro Luis Lazo intentionally hit Jayson Nix with a fastball during that deciding 11th inning.

"The only thing I'm concerned about is how the game ended," said Johnson.

"I lost my second baseman when the pitcher threw the ball at his head. I don't see any place for that in baseball. I respect the way Cuba plays baseball but I don't like losing players.

"I'm a proponent of hardball in baseball but not in favour of throwing at a guy who was squared around to sacrifice bunt. No game of baseball is worth that."

Johnson, whose team has now lost two of its three games in Beijing, was right about that but completely wrong about the incident. The ball flew up off Nix's bat into his face.

Delighted with the win against their counter-revolutionary rivals, Cuban coach Antonio Pacheco was far from happy about Johnson's comments.

"I think that shows a lack of respect on the part of the US coach," he said. "My players are incapable of doing something like that."

I'm not so sure about that - Lazo, seeking a third Olympic gold, has a roguish glint in his eye - but this was clearly an accident.

Still, it did at least prove there is a bit of life left in Olympic baseball and showed once more just how important famous bilateral rivalries are in a multi-sport, multi-national event.

The shame for Cuba, of course, is that after Beijing it is going to have to find another way of tweaking Uncle Sam's nose on a sports field.

Matt Slater is a BBC Sport journalist focusing on sports news. Our FAQs should answer any questions you have.


Comments

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  • 1. At 5:00pm on 15 Aug 2008, oke2008 [RIP #15] wrote:

    such a shame that this event is leaving the olympics whats even more of a shame is that this sport recieves no coverage on the BBC live or highlights. why is this? because, believe it or not baseball does have a cult following in the uk with a decent international team!

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  • 2. At 5:28pm on 15 Aug 2008, philipdr wrote:

    You can hardly blame the MLB teams for not allowing their players to take part given the the Olympics coincide with a critical part of the season, with teams vying for playoff places. Would you expect Man Utd, Chelsea etc. to release their best players in the last month of the Premiership?

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  • 3. At 5:47pm on 15 Aug 2008, Hodgy08 wrote:

    Not only am I glad that the BBC aren't showing any I'm delighted that this sport is being thrown out of the Olympics. What a joke to have a sport where the best players in the world can't compete, ditto football.

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  • 4. At 6:04pm on 15 Aug 2008, philskills wrote:

    I don't think many people care about baseball do they?

    It goes on for ever and none of the payers that turn up are any good.

    How did it make it in anyway?

    Why am I even writing this, I should be going home to watch paint dry.

    PY

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  • 5. At 6:06pm on 15 Aug 2008, jakobSch wrote:

    A bit better understanding of baseball, both American and internationally would have helped.
    Besides the Olympics, there's also a world championship in baseball, although like the Olympics, it's ignored by the MLB players. Cuba, of course, is a regular contender.
    What's far more interesting, is the World Baseball Classic, which inaugurated in 2006, which is a 'proper' world championship, with the best players in the world.
    It takes place in the pre-(MLB)-season and the competition in 2006 was very good. The US disappointed, but Korea made up for it with several upsets and only narrowly lost out to Japan in the final.

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  • 6. At 6:46pm on 15 Aug 2008, swswfel wrote:

    Funny title!I really don't understand why you are so care about the Political Institution now!?We can existence together,can't we?

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  • 7. At 8:29pm on 15 Aug 2008, madogharris wrote:

    Correction to what jakobSch wrote Korea did not play in the World Baseball Classic 2006 final . Cuba were actually Japan's opponents in the final where they lost 12-6. Cuba who fielded most of the players who had won gold 2 years ago in Athens beat some big baseball nations eg(Dominican Republic) who have some of the best MLB players. So it will be very dissapointing not seeing this sport being played in 4 years time where you can see some of the very best baseball players who cannot compete in the MLB. This sport is as lively and exciting then most of the sports being played in Bejing only that the life and excitement isn't based here in Europe( apart from some hopeful dutch people). It also more of a sport than some of the sports being played in Bejing right now...(You could even argue with some of the sports actually being an actual sport or more of a hobbie). You might not have the greatest baseball players being played in the olympics but its the same with boxing,football and so on but quite frankly it's one of the beauties of the olympics as you can see young atheletes strive towards greatness.eg(Amir Khan).But the sad thing about Cuba's participation is that most of the atheletes competing will not get a chance to take it to the next level ..making the olympics their short career high.So to take away the sport in which kids in Cuba thrive to one day compete in at the olympics is not only taking away a once in a lifetime opputunity for some people but acutally taking dreams away. Maybe the olympics commitee should think more before making rash decisions which will have life consequences to some people..

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  • 8. At 10:28pm on 15 Aug 2008, TheTomTyke wrote:

    Re: Hodgy08 (#3)


    Let's get rid of boxing too, unless one Floyd Mayweather is due to step in the ring?

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  • 9. At 10:32pm on 15 Aug 2008, Hodgy08 wrote:

    TTT, Amateur boxing and Professional Boxing are COMPLETELY different sports. Amateur boxing has its own credibility (although some of the judging is doing its best to ruin that). The Olympics is the very peak of amateur boxing. Nice fishing trip but you'll need better bait than that

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  • 10. At 11:55pm on 15 Aug 2008, Marvin wrote:

    Removing baseball is is a fair decision. If cricket can't be included, then neither should baseball! After all, greater numbers of people in more countries, spread more widely across the globe, and representing far more cultures play cricket. And cricket is older too.

    If they decide to include one-day cricket or the even faster 20-20 game into their schedule, then maybe baseball can come back.

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  • 11. At 03:17am on 16 Aug 2008, TheJags wrote:

    Shades of Iran beating the US at the World Cup back in the day - I forget the year. But, to be honest, it's a bit of a hollow victory in the end - how much can you celebrate beating a team full of players rejected by every possible baseball club?

    I feel sorry for "Taipei" though, I would have loved to see them win - though the Chinese government would probably have had them jailed or something. So it's probably for the best.

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  • 12. At 06:41am on 16 Aug 2008, Matt Slater wrote:

    Hello all, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting.

    Jakobsch, sorry you didn't think there was enough background knowledge on show here but I can assure you I am well aware of the World Series Classic, the "real" World Series and the Major Leagues. I lived in the States as a teenager, played the game at high school and was a regular visitor to Tiger Stadium. In fact, I even joined thousands of other Tiger fans in giving the old ball park a massive hug in 1989. Happy days.

    The problem here, of course, is that I am writing for a non-American audience not particularly familiar with or interested in the intricacies of US professional baseball's relationship with the "world game". I know full well that IF the US ever did put its best team into the field as a national side it would very probably come out on top more often than not. The fact that this rarely (if ever) happens makes it a great topic to speculate about. And it's funny you mention the WCS in 2006: off the top of my head, I think the States were 3-3 in that tournament....and they used major leaguers, albeit during spring training.

    braveheartjags, I see where you're coming from with the Iran comparison but to be honest yesterday's result wasn't really comparable. The Cubans have a great team and have beaten the Americans (whose team is made up of good college players and minor league prospects) regularly over the years. In fact, it was more of a surprise that the US had beaten them the last couple of times they had met.

    The China v Taiwan game was the real surprise. Taiwan have a pretty good league and a good team. China had never beaten them before, in fact China had never won an Olympic game before. They went nuts at the end.

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  • 13. At 09:29am on 16 Aug 2008, Nedtur wrote:

    Slater, you had to make some kind of reference to rounders. Baseball and rounders are clearly related and rounders is fun game. However, the British always feel need to put down my sport with references to Rounders. Its boring and rude.

    Chary8, while cricket may be played by more people than baseball, this is only down to the popularity of the game on the Indian subcontinent. How can you say that the 10 test playing nations, all of which are present or former British commonwealth nations, are diverse in culture? Many are also relatively small english speaking nations. Baseball, which is popular in the far east, central and north-america, represents just as diverse nations and cultures as cricket.

    That said, I baseball does not have a better claim to be an olympic sport than cricket, other than the fact that it already is one.

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  • 14. At 1:12pm on 16 Aug 2008, dave_a_pol wrote:

    Just a quick correction for Nedtur. Just because only about 10 countries play at the highest level in Cricket, doesn't mean that a lot more countries aren't involved in the sport. At the last count about 154 countries were active in the sport worldwide (including lots of non ex-British Colony countries). Of those countries about 1/2 are some sort of member (or associate member) or the ICC, and about 2/3 have some sort of active national league.

    I even read an article recently in the NY Times talking about Cricket Leagues in the US (thanks mainly to immigrant populations from the Carribean I think).

    Baseball on a similar measure has a pretty similar number of countries that play it. Of course, you are quite right to point out that thanks to the sub-continent, a lot more people play cricket than baseball worldwide. In fact, in terms of participation, there is a strong argument for cricket being one of the most popular sports in the world.

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  • 15. At 2:09pm on 16 Aug 2008, Krukker22 wrote:

    Your comment that the statement by Davey Johnson was wrong because the ball hit the bat first is plain stupid and uninformed, step into the batters box against a decent fastball and see what happens if it's in and high on you. Add in the fact that the hitter squared up to bunt, which the pitcher can pick up usually and Davey has a point, the pitch certainly should have gone elsewhere - whether it was deliberate or not is a totally different issue. Hitters do get plunked deliberately, especially if they've gone yard earlier in the game and showed the pitcher/team up or their own pitcher has hit someone, but with a bunt on ??? I think you need to know more baseball !

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  • 16. At 2:51pm on 16 Aug 2008, Nedtur wrote:

    dave_a_pol, good point. Cricket is played in almost every country on earth, which can also be said of baseball. I emphasized the 10 test playing nations because outside of these cricket is very much a minority sport.

    Having lived a large part of my life in Denmark, which is one of the better Associate Members of the ICC and where cricket was once the national sport (in the 19th century), I've seen how much of a minority sport cricket is outside British Commonwealth nations.

    My point is that baseball, like cricket, has a large and strong following around different parts of the world, but not in Continental Europe. Since the IOC is euro-centric organization (50% of the IOC members are European, and the majority of the games have been held in Europe), baseball has been voted out and cricket does not have much chance in gaining entry.

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  • 17. At 4:10pm on 16 Aug 2008, kinglofthouse wrote:

    As a Brit that grew up loving Cricket and lives in the US the comments on Baseball by the ignorant few are just that-ignorant. Cricket has its fair share of boring as does any game. I have learned to appreciate and love the game by being more informed. Just glad that Manny has left the BoSox. Nothing to do with the thread but never mind.

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  • 18. At 5:26pm on 16 Aug 2008, Matt Slater wrote:

    Krukker22, I fear you are making the assumption that because I am a British journalist writing about an American sport on a British website, I don't know what I'm talking about. I do. I played baseball at high school and have watched if for years. But more important than that, nobody but Johnson (who presumably hadn't seen a replay) thought the Cuban was to blame. Nix just miscued his bunt and got unlucky with the deflection. End of story. But thanks for reading.

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  • 19. At 5:50pm on 16 Aug 2008, AmitJM wrote:

    typical of americans to twist facts and make accusations before checking the evidence.

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  • 20. At 6:33pm on 16 Aug 2008, mojoriser9 wrote:

    blah blah blah

    why nationalize the sport. you pre suppose capitlalists are inherently superior in baseball.

    on any given day david can beat goliath.

    it does not matter what country you are from or the color of your uniform.

    nice try though. i almost took the bait..

    idiot

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  • 21. At 8:05pm on 16 Aug 2008, NightRider wrote:

    Actually, if too many countries do not play the sport, it should not be a part of the Olympics.

    Its already a big circus out there with all sorts of really funny games that are probably played only once every 4 years.

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  • 22. At 01:07am on 21 Aug 2008, Peter wrote:

    Baseball is played around the world. It's certainly not a likely win for the US. Cuba probably, or maybe Japan, but not the USA. In fact, I imagine that the deafening lack of support from the MLB in the US played a part in the decision to remove it from the 2012 games.

    Selfishly, I'm not too happy about that, as I would have had a chance to see some games over here.

    It's the people saying they're glad it was removed I find hard to fathom. I could understand if they didn't care, but "glad"?

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  • 23. At 08:49am on 21 Aug 2008, Matt Slater wrote:

    Hello mojoriser, nice of you to leave your thoughts.

    Exactly where do I "presuppose capitalists are inherently superior at baseball"? I think you're reading your own preconceived ideas about superiority into that headline. If you read the piece again you'll see I make it quite clear the US-Cuba result was not a strange one as the US had it's Z team out.

    And who has "nationalized" the sport? It's the Olympics, they're all here competing for their country. That's kind of the point.

    I'm also not sure who your Davids and Goliaths are in that metaphor? Do you know?

    And what would you have written if you had "taken the bait"? And what bait?

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  • 24. At 11:14pm on 22 Aug 2008, TonyFitz wrote:

    I fear that one of the reasons why baseball being pulled out of the games is due to MLB's failure to stick to WADA rules on doping. It seems that there's a system of fines that MLB imposes on their players that amounts to a slap on the wrist for taking performance enhancing drugs.

    This situation is obviously in direct contrast to the IOC's stance on drugs. This will hardly endear baseball to the IOC. It's a shame that softball was kicked out as well though.

    As a newly retired British player/manager who also served on the BBF executive, it upsets me that talented players won't get the chance to live the dream of competing in the Olympics. In fact this year the Brits had the opportunity to play taken away because of a shortfall of funds to attend the last qualifier tournament.

    No matter the sport, players want to play and fans want to watch players' skills. There's no need for people to say "good riddance" to any sport in the Olympics.

    Sadly, I don't see baseball and softball coming back to the Olympics any time soon. It's up to MLB, the IBAF and the IOC to sort things out.

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  • 25. At 2:25pm on 26 Aug 2008, LUFCParis wrote:

    As a great fan of baseball, I am in two minds about the game no longer taking part in the Olympics. I agree that it is a great shame that the GB lads (and lasses) will not get a chance to play in future Olympics.

    On the other hand, as TonyFitz mentioned, a large part of its expulsion is because of the failure to comply with WADA standards on drug testing. So on this basis, it is correct that the sport should be ousted.

    Also, the format of the competition is flawed. 8 teams qualify through regional pre-qualification groups. Automatically this means that many decent baseball countries are eliminated by geography.

    As for those who think it is just an American sport, think again. It is far more popular in Japan than sumo and anyone looking at the MLB squads will see that there is a massive amount of Central Americans playing at the very highest level.

    In last night's NY Mets team last night, 4 of the 9 starting players were from Central America.

    Finally, regarding comments on 'rounders'... I challenge anyone to stand in the batter's box, face a curveball or a fastball, get back up off the floor, and still call it rounders!

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