Do you believe in nightmares? Yes! At the Olympic baseball
qualifying tournament in Panama City, Team USA, a collection of
minor league players coached by Expos manager Frank Robinson,
outscored three preliminary-round opponents 20-0: business as
usual for the defending gold medal champs. Then, last Friday the
Americans were upset 2-1 by lightly regarded Mexico--and just
like that, under the one-loss-and-you're-out rule governing
baseball, basketball, hockey and other sports, the U.S. was
eliminated from next summer's Olympics. So much for Roger
Clemens's talk of taking the mound in Athens.

The loss was more than just a blow to American fans; it could
help usher baseball out of the Olympics. Because the sport has
never had strong international appeal, the IOC considers it
dispensable, a notch below beach volleyball and synchronized
swimming. And that was before the glamour team got bounced from
the tournament, leaving the untantalizing prospect of, say, the
Netherlands and Italy playing America's pastime in Greece.

The IOC has already discussed dropping baseball, an Olympic sport
since 1984, but the proposal was tabled until 2005, largely in
the hope that Major League Baseball would agree to send players
to the Olympics, as the NHL and NBA do. But MLB, in concert with
its players' union, prohibited players who were on active rosters
after Aug. 31 from competing in pre-Olympic events, citing a
conflict with the season. MLB also said it would not interrupt
next season to let players go to Greece. (Privately Olympic
officials also hint that MLB and the union did not want players
subjected to the Games' strict drug tests.)

Meanwhile MLB and the players' association are trying to put
together a baseball World Cup that would take place before the
2005 season and feature Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa (playing for the
Dominican Republic) and Ichiro Suzuki (playing for Japan). A
successful World Cup might persuade MLB to extend its All-Star
break so players could join the Olympics for the medal-round
games in 2008. Without the big leaguers Olympic baseball is
probably facing its last at bat.

--Brian Cazeneuve

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: GUILLERMO ARIAS/AP (2) OUT! Manager Frank Robinson and outfielder Matt Holliday lackedbig league support.