Is baseball as we know it – with bats and gloves – going to be a thing of the past? Maybe, if a new format being looked at by the world governing body catches on. While both baseball and softball have been placed back on the program for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, their inclusion in Paris (2024) and beyond is far from certain.
Various problems with the sports have factored into this, but they come down to a lack of appeal to youth, an overall lack of worldwide participation, a need for large amounts of land for fields, and a need for equipment that not all kids can get their hands on worldwide.
The answer, says the World Baseball Softball Confederation, is Baseball5 (also known as street baseball), a five-a-side street game that uses a rubber ball and can be played in an urban environment. In Baseball5, there is no pitcher. The ‘batter’ bounces the ball and strikes it with a fist or open hand, then heads for first base while the fielding team tries to get him or her out (the same as in regular baseball). Each game is five innings long. There’s a great video of it here.
Baseball5 is played on a smaller ‘field,’ with the distance between bases being 13 meters (a little more than 42 feet), as opposed to the 90 feet in traditional baseball. Baseball5’s edgy, urban vibe is designed to appeal to the youth element sought after by governing bodies worldwide – and particularly by the IOC, which has been seeking to increase engagement in the Olympics among a younger demographic. It is already starting its own social media campaign with the hashtag of #PlayEverwhere.
“Appealing to youth is a key goal of the Olympic Movement with sports such as skateboarding, surfing and 3x3 basketball earning their place on the Games program for the first time at Tokyo 2020,” notes an article in Inside The Games.
In fact, Baseball5 will be featured at the sports initiation zone at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in October.
According to Sports Pro Media, WBSC has also announced that Havana, Cuba, will host the first Baseball5 Championships. Games will begin on November 23 and will be held in collaboration with Cuba’s National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER). The tournament will serve as the semi-finals and finals of INDER’s Cuatro Esquinas Cuban street baseball competition, and will include men’s, women’s, mixed, and youth categories.
Sports Pro Media goes on to note that Baseball5 (which was launched in Cuba this past fall), is designed to bring about a new worldwide game.
According the WBSC, the two-day competition is designed to function as a pilot in order to develop the new discipline of street baseball further after the introduction of Baseball5 Street Baseball at the Friendship Games in Burundi in August.
WBSC has also launched street baseball initiatives such as Baseball5 in Havana and Mini Baseball in Taiwan with the aim of building a strong baseball community over the next decade.
"The WBSC is committed to the development of this new Baseball 5 discipline, and we believe it has enormous potential to be another key attraction that will further our sport's position among the leaders in the youth space, while helping to bring more sporting opportunities to underserved communities," said Riccardo Fraccari, president of the WBSC.
"We are also particularly excited that the Baseball5 Championships in Havana will crown champions across four categories, including mixed - this is something completely new for our sport and follows the Olympic movement's forward-thinking and inclusive direction."
One of the complaints about having baseball and softball in the Olympics has long been the fact that it has been dominated by only two or three nations, since both baseball and softball lack popularity in many other areas. (Another problem for the U.S. has been getting MLB to release its players to participate in the Olympics – which became a means of effectively gutting teams of their star players. The NHL this year, in a similar move, did not allow its players to go to the Olympics).
The advantage of Baseball5, according to promoters, is that it will be introduced globally to all nations at the same time, eliminating the ‘deep bench’ baseball and softball enjoy in other countries, and thus creating a more level playing field worldwide.