2021 in Review: Olympics, Yamada, Frazier, Rodriguez headline historic year for int'l baseball

2021 in Review: Olympics, Yamada, Frazier, Rodriguez headline historic year for int'l baseball
Shut down in 2020, international baseball in 2021 returned to the field with Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualifiers, 18 months after the Premier12 2019. The U-23 in Mexico became the first Baseball World Cup played since the U-18 2019 in Korea.

After the unique year of 2020, which featured no major international baseball competitions for the first time in over 50 years, international baseball's return to the field of play saw the crème de la crème of baseball's greatest stars came to the fore again.

The likes of former Major League Baseball (MLB) star Todd Frazier from USA and the Dominican Republic’s 20-year-old Julio Rodriguez, one of the top MLB prospects, made immediate headlines in the first two events of the year – the WBSC Americas and Final Olympic Qualifiers in USA and Mexico. These national team players not only impressed with their physical talents on the field -- leading their teams to qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games -- but also with their fire and passion for playing for their respective countries.

National Pride

"It's hard to put into words, because it means a lot to me,” Frazier said after helping USA qualify for Tokyo in Florida. “This is something that I'll never forget, this is one of the best moments in my professional career, playing for your country."

"You can see the pride that every team had, every player wanted to win so badly,” the veteran third baseman said. “And that's what make the Olympics exciting, playing for USA, playing for Canada for instance, or Venezuela. I wish you guys could understand it felt like a Major League game in playoffs," Frazier told media.

Rodriguez, who helped Dominican Republic qualify for Tokyo at the Final Olympic Qualifier in Mexico was similar in his feelings. “Representing my country is just the most special baseball I’ve ever played in my life," he said. "It’s just a different feeling. It's the most special moment of my life."

Role Models

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games MVP Tetsuto Yamada was another key part of the headline act of 2021. The Samurai Japan utility started five games in the world No. 1's run to the Tokyo 2020 gold medal, four as the designated hitter one at second base. He went 7-for-20 with a home run and seven runs batted in (RBIs), while adding four assists without any errors in his only defensive appearance.

Read more on Yamada and Samurai Japan's gold medal performance in the forthcoming Year in Review Olympic Special coming soon.

A few weeks after the Olympic Games, international baseball was back again. Colombia's Gustavo Campero was the star at the WBSC U-23 Baseball World Cup in Mexico, with the catcher/left fielder hitting a tournament best .571, with a home run and eight runs batted in. "I have so much to be thankful for," he said after the closing ceremony. "It was already an honour to be here, let alone earning MVP honours and leading Colombia to a bronze medal."

Back in Play

When the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico took the field at Clover Park in St. Lucie County, Florida, on 31 May 2021 and opened the WBSC Americas Olympic Qualifier, baseball hadn't appeared on the international stage for almost 18 months (since the 2019 WBSC Premier 12). There were 2,835 fans in the stands, and the Dominican Republic earned a 5-2 win. They would go on to finish second behind the United States in the seven-team tournament and earn another chance to qualify for the Olympics.

The US earned the only Tokyo 2020 ticket available in Florida to join the host country Japan, Korea, Mexico (qualified through the WBSC Premier12 in November 2019) and Israel, the first team to qualify in September 2019.

Led by legendary manager Mike Scioscia, the US won on home soil thanks to a mix of veterans, such as outfielder Matt Kemp and relief pitcher Brandon Dickson, and young prospects in the likes of slugger Triston Casas, center fielder Jarren Duran and outfielder Luke Williams, who would hit a walk-off home run for the Philadelphia Phillies in his MLB debut game days after the tournament.

The Dominican Republic also relied on experienced ex-major leaguers such as Melky Cabrera and José Bautista as well as Rodriguez who went 11-for-24, posting a batting monster .458 average, with two home runs and seven runs batted in (RBIs).

COVID-19 travel limitations impacted the WBSC Final Olympic Baseball Qualifier. Scheduled initially in Taiwan, the tournament was moved to Puebla, Mexico, due to Taiwan having implemented stronger COVID-19 countermeasures and restrictions. China, Chinese Taipei and Australia withdrew from the tournament, which became a three-team affair between the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands and Venezuela.

The Dominican Republic went undefeated and advanced to the Olympics, where host nation Japan won their first-ever gold medal, with the US earning silver and the Dominican Republic celebrating bronze, their first-ever Olympic medal in the sport.

On 23 September, the U-23 Baseball World Cup opened in Ciudad Obregon and Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. It became the first Baseball World Cup played after the COVID-19 outbreak. It opened over two years after the U-18 Baseball World Cup in Korea.

Venezuela defeated host Mexico in the final, played at Estadio Sonora in Hermosillo on 2 October.

The Official World Championship for Venezuela marked the pinnacle of an incredible climb through the U-23 standings over the years. The nation finished in eighth place at the inaugural U-23 event in 2016 before taking home the bronze medals with a third place finish at the 2018 U-23 World Cup in Colombia.

Colombia captured a historic bronze medal, defeating a brave Cuban side in the third place game.

With the success of international baseball under severe and unprecedented conditions, the future of baseball looks bright, as it is a sport that can be successfully played, operated and enjoyed in the toughest of conditions.

You might also be interested in:
- Mike Scioscia on USA winning the Americas Olympic Qualifier
- Hector Borg on Dominican Republic qualifying for the Olympics
- Venezuela wins U-23 Baseball World Cup