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Baseball and softball at the 2020 Olympics: Everything you need to know

It's unlikely that MLB players will travel to Tokyo.

Serious pitcher standing on pitcher's mound

America's favorite pastime returns to the Olympic Games in 2020.

Jupiter images/Getty Images

America's favorite pastime returns to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Despite the sport's massive worldwide following, baseball has only sporadically appeared at the Olympics, with humble beginnings as an exhibition sport. The game finally received Olympic sport status in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics, but it was dropped again in the 2008 games.

Baseball's sister sport softball debuted at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but was also dropped in 2008. Now both sports will return after 12 years. This article covers everything you need to know about the two sports, including how the events will run, how teams will qualify, what it means for the Major Baseball League and more. 

How do baseball and softball work at the Olympics? 

Baseball and softball will both run in a modified tournament format. The World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC), the international governing body established in 2013 to merge the International Softball Federation and the International Baseball Federation, will run the competitions. 

Each tournament -- one for baseball and one for softball -- features six teams. The softball tournament will consist of a single round-robin among the six teams, followed by a bronze medal game and a gold medal game for a total of 17 games. 

The baseball tournament opens with a group round-robin with two pools of three teams. Each team will play the other two teams in the pool once, with a total of six games played in the group round-robin. 

The group round-robin is followed by a knockout round of 10 total games, wherein the first three games feature teams that finished in the same position within their pools (A1 vs. B1, A2 vs. B2, A3 vs. B3). The loser of the A3 vs. B3 game is eliminated, and the rest of the competition ensues in a double-elimination format until there is one team left in each of the winners and losers brackets. Those two teams play the gold medal game. 

A softball catcher shown catching a pitch

Baseball's sister sport, softball, also returns to the Olympics in 2020 -- and the first qualifying team is the US.

Krista Long/Getty Images

How do teams qualify for Olympic baseball and softball?

Like in other Olympic sports, baseball and softball both reserve a host nation slot, so Japan's teams qualify automatically. 

For softball, the US already qualified by beating Japan in the 2018 World Championships in Chiba, Japan. Japan qualifies automatically, so the remaining four teams will qualify from the following continental competitions: 

  • Europe-Africa qualifier: This competition features the top six teams from the European Championships and the top two teams in Africa. One team will qualify for the 2020 Olympics. 
  • Americas qualifier: This qualifier features up to 16 national teams, and the top two will advance to the Olympics.
  • Asia-Oceania qualifier: One team out of six from the Asian Games and two from Oceania will qualify for the 2020 Olympics.

For baseball, Japan's first rival will be decided at the WBSC 12, an international competition in November 2019 that pits the top 12 teams of 2018 against each other. The top finisher from the Americas and the top finisher from Asia/Oceania (excluding Japan) go to the Olympics. After that, other teams have a chance to qualify via these events: 

  • Europe-Africa qualifier: The top five teams from the European Championships 2019 and the winner of the 2019 African Championships compete for one spot in the 2020 Olympics.
  • Americas qualifier: Eight teams, including those who competed in the WBSC 12 but didn't qualify, compete for one spot in the Olympics. 
  • Pan-American Games: The champion earns a ticket to the Games. 
  • Intercontinental tournament: To decide the final slot, six teams compete. Those teams include the second- and third-placed teams in the Americas qualifier; the second-placed team in the Africa-Europe qualifying tournament; the best two teams at the Asian Championships (excluding those already qualified); and the winner of the 2019 Oceania tournament.
OLY-2020-TOKYO-BASEBALL

The Fukushima Azuma baseball stadium, venue for the baseball and softball at the 2020 Olympics, is pictured during a media tour in Fukushima on Aug. 3, 2019.

Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

Do MLB players participate in the Olympics?

The MLB has never halted or interrupted its season for the Olympics, and MLB officials still seem reluctant to do so. The 2020 Olympics are scheduled for July 24 to Aug. 9, which is smack in the middle of the MLB season.

Shortly after the announcement was made that baseball would appear in the 2020 Games, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said it was unlikely that MLB athletes would play, as it would mean that some MLB teams would play short-handed or the league would shut down for two weeks during the Olympics. The latter half of MLB's season is the most crucial, as it sets up which teams will make it to the playoffs and ultimately the World Series, so it's even harder to justify players taking time away from their teams.

In 2008, the last year baseball was seen at the Olympics, the US roster was filled by minor league players and one college player. 

According to Baseball America, USA Baseball is again eyeing minor league players for Team USA, but an official announcement won't be made until later this year. Plus, NBC Sports reports that no athletes on an MLB 40-man roster are eligible for the WBSC 12, the largest qualifying tournament for baseball at the 2020 Olympics. 

So far, it seems unlikely that any big leaguers will travel to Japan next summer. 

When and where can I watch Olympic baseball and softball?

Both tournaments will begin at the Azuma Stadium in Fukushima, with softball on July 22, 2020, and baseball on July 29, 2020. The finals will continue at Yokohama Stadium in Yokohama, Japan, with the softball final on July 28 and the baseball final on Aug. 8.

Check out the schedule of events here.

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