For the first time in 13 years, baseball and softball will be contested at the Olympics.
Thanks to Japan’s ardent love of both sports, baseball and softball are back in the Games after being voted out in 2005 as permanent Olympic offerings. The criticisms then were that the sports weren’t global enough and, in baseball’s case, the best players in the world didn’t participate. Baseball, played by men in the Olympics, had officially joined the Games in 1992 and softball, played by women, in 1996.
This summer is a long time coming for several athletes. Some softball players had retired and then came out of retirement when their sport was brought back for the Tokyo Games. Others stuck it out for years hoping for this moment.
The return of softball and baseball will be brief, however, since neither is a permanent Olympic sport. They weren’t included by the organizing committee of the 2024 Summer Games in Paris. But there is hope: Baseball and softball are widely expected to return in 2028, when Los Angeles is the host.
In baseball, the teams are Japan (which has appeared in every Olympics for baseball and is ranked No. 1 in the world), the United States (which won gold in 2000 and is ranked No. 4) and South Korea (which won gold in 2008 and is ranked No. 3). Making their first appearances in the Olympics for baseball are Mexico, which is No. 5 in the world, and Israel, the Cinderella of the tournament and ranked No. 24. The Dominican Republic, the last team to qualify and No. 7 in the world, rounds out the field.
(The country with the most gold medals in baseball — Cuba, with three — didn’t qualify.)
In softball, the teams are headlined by the United States (which won gold in 1996, 2000 and 2004, and is the top-ranked team in the world) and Japan (which won gold in 2008 and is ranked No. 2). No. 3 Canada and No. 8 Australia will be making their fifth Olympic appearances in softball. Making its first is Mexico, ranked No. 5 in the world. No. 9 Italy is back for the first time since 2004.
How do the tournaments work?
In softball, the tournament is straightforward: Each team will play each other once, so five games per squad. Then the top two teams after the round-robin stage will play for the gold medal, while the next two best teams compete for a bronze medal.
In baseball, it’s more complicated. The six teams are divided into two groups of three — Japan, Mexico and the Dominican Republic in Group A, and South Korea, the United States and Israel in Group B. Each team will play the other two teams within their group during the round-robin stage.
In the knockout round, the two group winners advance straight to a second knockout round. But the two second-place teams and the two third-place teams face each other. The loser of the latter game is eliminated.
From then on, the games are played in a double-elimination format. The winners from each side of the bracket — the winners’ side and the losers’ side — play each other for the gold medal. Got all that? (For an easier-to-digest flow chart, see here.)
When and where are the games?
The games will be played mostly at Yokohama Baseball Stadium, about 40 minutes south of downtown Tokyo. A few games, including the opening games of each tournament, will be at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, about three and a half hours north of Tokyo.
The softball tournament has already begun, even before the opening ceremony, and runs through July 27. (The United States won its first two games.) The baseball competition goes from July 28 to Aug. 7.
Who are the teams and the players to watch?
In baseball, the betting favorite is Japan, followed by the United States and South Korea. The top professional league in the world, Major League Baseball in the United States, doesn’t pause its season for the Olympics, nor are its players allowed to play in the Games. But Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan and the Korea Baseball Organization in South Korea do take a break to allow their players to participate.
As a result, the Japanese roster is filled with talent. It has many veteran stars who are former Japanese league M.V.P.s., including pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, the former Yankees All-Star who returned to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Nippon league this season; pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano; and infielders Hayato Sakamoto and Tetsuto Yamada. There are also younger standouts like Yoshinobu Yamamoto, a hard-throwing pitcher, and Seiya Suzuki, a power-hitting outfielder.
In softball, many signs point to another showdown between the United States and Japan for the gold medal. The Americans have claimed the top prize in three of the four previous Olympics. The only time they didn’t was in 2008, when Japan handed the United States its only loss that tournament behind the powerful arm of Yukiko Ueno. She tossed 413 pitches in three games over the final two days, including outdueling the American star pitchers Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott in a 3-1 win for the gold medal.
All three of those pitchers are back, and the U.S. roster has added young talent that wasn’t around back then, including Haylie McCleney, a slugging outfielder, and infielder Ali Aguilar.