Monday, May 25, 2009 |10:01 |Age: 5 yrs
THE INFLUENCE GAME: Baseball pitches diplomats
Not many fans get to go on the field for batting practice the first time they attend a baseball game. Nor do they get to schmooze with players or take away autographed baseballs and other goodies.
But this wasn't your typical collection of first-time fans watching the Washington Nationals and the Pittsburgh Pirates Wednesday night. They were foreign diplomats on the receiving end of a straight pitch: Help bring baseball back to the Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee voted four years ago to drop baseball and softball from the Games starting in 2012. Baseball is among seven sports competing for two openings at the 2016 Games. The International Olympic Committee will decide in October.
Many of the diplomats in attendance Wednesday night had never been to a baseball game before. Organizers from the State Department and the International Baseball Federation did their best to both explain and extol the sport. (An Associated Press reporter was given exclusive access to the group before and during the game.)
The diplomats watched the game from three private suites, and were feted with a buffet dinner that included corn on the cob, brisket, wraps, hot dogs, coleslaw, deserts, wine and beer. Harvey Schiller, the baseball federation president, said that his group picked up the roughly $2,000 tab for the food; the Nationals donated the suites.
Retired major league players, including B.J. Surhoff and Bobby Bonilla, hung out in the suites and signed autographs for the diplomats.
"It's important for our youngsters to have that dream to play in the Olympics," Bonilla said. "It's a dream of everybody to participate in the Olympics. I wish I'd had the opportunity. It's a really big deal."
The dean of the Washington diplomatic corps, Djibouti ambassador Roble Olhaye, threw out the first pitch. Not only was it his first baseball game, he said, but it was the first time he had ever held a baseball.
The rookie went straight to the mound and had a nice delivery, clearing home plate on a fly, although the ball bounced before landing in the mitt of a Nats' player in the catcher's box.
"It was great," Olhaye said. "Almost in the center of the world. Good feeling."
Olhaye said he supported baseball's return to the Olympics.
"Why not?" he said. "We'll add our voice toward that, positively."
Before the game, the diplomats gathered in a stadium conference room, where Gladys Boluda, assistant chief of protocol for diplomatic affairs, praised baseball as "America's national pastime ... a religion for many, and a diplomatic tool that has helped further our cultural ties."
Any help the diplomats could provide "would be very much appreciated," said Donald Fehr, the head of the players union, who called the event "a bit of a lobbying effort."
"We just need to get more attention to those countries that are not as familiar with the game," Schiller said. "Having them talk about it globally helps us, if not this time, then down the road."
The Nationals president, Stan Kasten, told the AP that the team was completely behind the effort.
"Baseball is a rapidly growing sport," Kasten said. "It was a mistake to drop the sport, but a mistake that can and should be corrected."
Fehr said he supports it too, because some major league players want to participate in the Olympics, and "part of my job is to see that they have those opportunities."
The diplomats arrived a couple of hours before the first pitch and were escorted down to the field to watch batting practice. Manager Manny Acta and some Nationals players signed balls and caps and chatted with the visitors, with Acta holding one conversation in Spanish.
One of the few baseball fans in the mix, Pakistan ambassador Husain Haqqani, gave in to an urge to needle the players — "Do something about your pitching, guys!" he teased — and said he's already spoken to his nation's IOC representative about baseball.
"Of course they have their own views because Pakistan has its own priorities of what sports we want in the Olympics. But personally, I'm a big baseball fan," said Haqqani, who came to love the Red Sox while living in Boston.
The hosts talked up baseball's growing popularity around the world, and its potential for cultural exchange.
"As a sport widely identified with the United States, we'd obviously like to see our national pastime in the Olympics," said Craig Kelly, the No. 2 person at the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Despite the optimism, baseball faces several obstacles in getting back on the program. It's got competition from six other sports — softball, golf, rugby sevens, roller speedskating, squash and karate — and some baggage because of doping scandals.
The lobbying effort seemed to work. Several ambassadors said they were on board with making baseball an Olympic sport again.
"It's a very popular game, millions of people like it, and play it," said Kosovo ambassador Avni Spahiu. "I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be."