Liam Carroll took over as head coach of the British baseball team in January 2015 with one burning ambition: take Great Britain to the Olympics.
Big in Japan, baseball/softball looks almost certain to return to the Olympic programme at Tokyo 2020, having last appeared at the Games in 2008.
With just six places up for grabs, Great Britain is aiming to represent Europe, but they face a tall order to get there.
The World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) has said the 2019 Premier12 tournament — which replaced the Baseball World Cup — will act as the qualifying tournament for the Olympics.
That means Great Britain must improve its ranking from 33rd to at least 12th by 2018 in order to qualify for the Premier12, and then go beyond the group stage against the world’s very best to make the Olympics.
Britain’s next big chance to gain vital ranking points will be at September’s European Baseball Championship, a tournament that has been won by either hosts the Netherlands or Italy every time since 1967 – but Carroll is unfazed.
Born in London to an Irish-American father, Carroll was bought up to love baseball and briefly played at college in California, before deciding coaching better suited his talents.
He is setting his sights higher than simply taking part come September – despite having only made the final twice [in 1967 and 2007], he believes his side have a shot at winning the tournament en route to qualifying for the 2020 Olympics.
“It’s an uphill battle for sure,” Carroll said. “Our vision includes qualifying for the Premier12 and subsequently the Olympics Games assuming, hoping, that the sport is reinstated for 2020.
“We will have to have pretty much everything go right in terms of our successes in September in order for that to happen, rankings points-wise.
“Our goal in the short-term is to medal in the tournament. In our group, we have the Czech Republic, Germany, Holland, Russia and Sweden, all of whom are ranked above us, so I think we’re the underdogs coming in.
“But our goal is to medal and, given the nature of tournament play, how a ball bounces here or there, you never know, we might end up with a gold.”
Carroll was keen to stress, however, that developing baseball in the UK was the ultimate priority and that the pursuit of Olympic glory would be just as beneficial as participation.
“[Even if we won European Baseball Championships] it would still be a close call,” Carroll said. “But it’s what we’re aiming for and something that’s very important for me and our programme.
“By aspiring towards those things and trying to have an impact on everything domestically in terms of the development of the game we are going to be in a pretty good situation in 2020, whether we’re playing in Tokyo or not.”
Although baseball’s inclusion at Tokyo 2020 is almost beyond doubt, Carroll is wary of getting carried away, having been let down by the decision to exclude baseball from London 2012.
“At the moment, it’s waiting until August,” Carroll said. “We’re all very positive given the initial vote last year, so we’re hoping that it’s going to be a case of just a rubber stamp in Rio.
“But, given our experience of being removed from the programme in the 2005 vote [on 2012 programme], I don’t think anyone in the baseball community wants to count their chickens.”
The frustration of that decision has stayed with Carroll, but it is the sense of a missed opportunity, rather than personal disappointment, that really rankles with him.
“If the legacy of the London Games was going to be youth participation and using sport to change people’s lives,” Carroll said. “I think that legacy would have been stronger with baseball and softball’s participation because of how many different types of people can play our sport.”
British sport may have missed an opportunity in 2012 but, if Great Britain can defy the odds and make it to Tokyo in four years’ time, then Carroll must take the credit for making up for lost time and creating a legacy for the sport in the UK.
Image courtesy of Trevor Greenaway-Clissold and BSUK, with thanks