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Explained: Why several Major League Baseball stars are returning to their home nations

Among those yet to secure their spot are powerhouses such as the United States, three-time Olympic gold medallists Cuba and the Netherlands.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt , Edited by Explained Desk | Delhi |
Updated: March 1, 2021 10:35:52 am
Israel's catcher Nick Rickles, right, pitcher Jake Kalish, second from right, and other players listen to their national anthem during the opening ceremony of their second round game against the Netherlands at the World Baseball Classic at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Monday, March 13, 2017. (AP Photo/File)

With baseball making its return to the Olympics after 12 years, several non-American Major League Baseball stars are returning to their home nations to be eligible for the tournament.

Which countries have qualified for the Olympics?

Four of the six berths have been booked by Japan, Israel, Mexico, and South Korea. Two qualifiers were postponed by the pandemic last year and remain to be played. Among those yet to secure their spot are powerhouses such as the United States, three-time Olympic gold medallists Cuba and the Netherlands.

Are MLB players allowed to take part?

Only amateurs and minor league players have participated in the Olympics as the tournament clashes with the Major League Baseball (MLB) season.

Last February, MLB and the MLB Players Association signed a deal, under which players on 40-man rosters (or expanded rosters) could play in Olympic qualifiers and the Games, but only if they were not on an active MLB roster. In short, it means only top prospects who are currently signed but playing in minor leagues, or MLB veterans optioned to the minor leagues will be available. Top prospects are those touted to be future greats but sent to a team’s minor affiliate for development.

Philadelphia Phillies’ six-time All-Star outfielder Bryce Harper called the decision “dumb”.

“You want to grow the game as much as possible and you’re not going to let us play in the Olympics because you don’t want to [lose] out on money for a two-week period?” Harper told reporters last year.

While MLB-affiliated players may only play if they are not on the team’s active roster, Japan and South Korea will be able to call on their domestic stars from Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korean Baseball Organisation.

Which players have made the move?

Choo Shin-soo (South Korea)

On Tuesday, Choo Shin-soo signed a one-year, 2.7 billion-won (US$2.4 million) contract with the SK Wyverns of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), marking his return to his home league after 16 years in MLB.

The most successful South Korean hitter in MLB history, Choo played for Seattle Mariners, Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds and the Texas Rangers. The 38-year-old was also South Korea’s hero at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, going 8-for-14 with three home runs in five games to help win the gold medal. He couldn’t compete at the next two Asiads due to MLB commitments.

Earlier this week, when asked if he was willing to compete at the Olympics, Choo replied “yes”.

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National coach Kim Kyung-moon congratulated the veteran but declined to comment on the Olympic squad. “He just signed his contract, and if I talk about his future with the national team, it would only put more burden on him,” Kim told reporters. “I’ll be keeping an eye on all players, including Choo, and put together the team as I see fit.”

Masahiro Tanaka (Japan)

Last month, All-Star starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka decided not to re-sign with the New York Yankees, opting instead to return to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan. The Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) will be taking a summer break to accommodate the Games.

Tanaka played for the Eagles from 2007-2013 before moving to New York for seven seasons. The 32-year-old’s announcement on Twitter last month gained over 45 thousand likes and six thousand retweets.

“At the instant I became a free agent, truthfully, my desire was to re-sign with the Yankees and continue playing for them,” Tanaka told reporters. “But at a very early stage, I heard from them through my agent and felt it would be better if I considered other options, which I considered, including a return to Japan.”

Adrian Gonzalez (Mexico)

LA Dodgers legend Adrian Gonzalez has come out of retirement to join the Mexican national team. The five-time All-Star first baseman, who was granted a release by New York Mets in 2018, announced his return last year.

The 38-year-old Gonzalez, nicknamed El Titan, hasn’t named the club he has signed with.

“I’m not trying to come back to MLB, but I do want to play one last tournament in my career which would be the Olympics for Team Mexico,” Gonzalez, who was born in San Diego and lived in Tijuana, told ABC last August. “That’s something that I can put on that bucket list. And not a lot of people in baseball will ever have that experience.”

Ryan Lavarnway, Josh Zeid, Jared Lakind, Scott Burcham, Jake Fishman, Ian Kinsler (Israel)

After Israel qualified for their first Olympic baseball tournament by upsetting European heavyweights in 2019 September’s European-African tournament, a group of American Jewish MLB pros claimed Israeli citizenship to compete at the Games.

Catcher Ryan Lavarnway, pitchers Josh Zeid, Jake Fishman and Jared Lakind, shortstop Scott Burcham, and second baseman Ian Kinsler officially immigrated to be eligible for the Olympics. While Zeid and Kinsler have come out of retirement, others in the group currently play for minor teams and thus can play in Tokyo.

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