Baseball gets chippy

Six hit batsmen, two collisions, an injured catcher and a woozy top prospect. No wonder big-league teams want no part of the Olympics.

Published August 18, 2008 9:55PM (EDT)

Prized Cleveland Indians prospect Matt LaPorta is day-to-day after getting hit in the head by a pitch during the United States' 9-1 baseball victory over China Monday.

LaPorta, who was traded by the Milwaukee Brewers to Cleveland for ace pitcher C.C. Sabathia last month, lay on the ground for several minutes after getting clocked on the helmet by relief pitcher Chen Kun in the sixth inning. He was helped off the field, looking woozy.

LaPorta was the sixth U.S. hit batsman of the game. Chen was ejected for the pitch, as was China pitching coach and acting manager Steve Ontiveros. The seventh-inning beaning was probably retaliation for LaPorta having knocked Chinese catcher Wang Wei out of the game in a home-plate collision in the fifth. Wang might miss the rest of the games with a knee injury.

Ontiveros was the acting manager because China skipper Jim Lefebvre had been tossed in the sixth following another collision at the plate, San Francisco Giants farmhand Nate Schierholtz plowing over backup catcher Yang Yang, who had been blocking the plate without the ball. Lefebvre, who thought Schierholtz's hit was dirty, made his feelings clear and got the thumb.

So that count again: Six hit batsmen, two home-plate collisions, two injured players, both of them signed to big-league clubs. Though not a prospect, the 29-year-old Wang belongs to the Seattle Mariners. The U.S. is already missing Jayson Nix, who was the Colorado Rockies' Opening Day second baseman before being shipped to the minors. He took a foul ball off his eye and is out for the tournament.

Is it any wonder major league teams don't want their players or their better prospects coming to the Olympics? Injury risk is present in any game, but in Olympic baseball, clubs take on the added risk that comes with lower-level umpiring. The home-plate ump in the U.S.-China game Monday was Edwin van den Berk of the Netherlands. He's a veteran international umpire, but ask yourself how many major league arbiters come from the Netherlands.

Lefebvre claimed that van den Berk let the game get out of hand. It's hard to picture a U.S. umpire not tossing the manager of a team that had hit five opposing batters.

Dallas Mavericks -- and would-be Chicago Cubs -- owner Mark Cuban has written on his "Blog Maverick" that the NBA should not allow its players to compete in the Olympics because they and their broadcast partners are competitors of the league.

Pointing out that the NBA is on ABC/ESPN and TNT while the Olympics are broadcast on NBC, he wrote four years ago: "Why are we giving our most valuable manpower to a huge business, the Olympics, so they can try to take revenue away from the NBA and our partners?"

Cuban wrote that the Olympics allow advertisers to capitalize on NBA players' fame without the NBA getting a share, that the games put those players at risk of injury, with little benefit to the NBA and the possibility of an injured player's team having to carry his useless contract for years, and that they potentially harm the players' teams by wearing the players down in what should be the offseason.

He rightly dismisses the idea that the Olympics are about patriotism and representing one's country, inviting readers to create a fan site for their favorite Olympic athlete, using the Olympic rings as a logo.

"Show your patriotism and pride," he wrote, "that is until you get a takedown letter or a Cease and Desist ordering you to take it down. That's how much about country and pride the Olympics is these days."

Cuban's idea for the NBA is to have its own World Cup-style tournament every four years, with NBA players representing their countries in an enterprise that benefits the league. Baseball is already doing that with the World Baseball Classic, which is scheduled to renew next year. Teams aren't too excited about sending their best players to that either, because of the injury risk.

Baseball's on its way out in the Olympics, though there are boosters who will be fighting for reinstatement. I wonder how much support there will be for that idea from any front office that watched blue-chipper LaPorta wobble off the field in Beijing Monday, leaning on teammates and trainers.

There won't be any from this corner. Olympic baseball's all right, but if that had been a real game, there would have been a bench-clearing brawl.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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