By Arnie Leshin
They’re playing softball all over the globe. It’s a popular sport, with the NCAA women’s Division I championships filling every seat at Oklahoma City’s Hall of Fame Stadium to see Oklahoma defeat Florida State in the deciding game of the best-of-three finals.
That’s good. What’s bad is that it has taken nearly 13 years since the United States played softball at the Olympics. It was that sad day at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when the sport was voted out of the annual summer games in a colossal mistake by the seemingly out of touch International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the Games went on without it.
But thanks to Japan, the host of these 2020 Summer Olympics, softball was brought back, and on Wednesday afternoon at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, the red, white and blue was back in the circle that it had dominated, and now in quest of a fourth consecutive gold medal.
It’s been awhile, but behind the right-handed, one-hit twirling of 38-year-old
superstar Cat Osterman, who came out of retirement for another shot at the Olympics, and shut down Italy, 2-0.
That was the Americans first of a doubleheader, with the second contest bringing a 3-0 win over Canada, the No. 3-ranked nation behind the top-ranked USA. This time it called on 35-year-old Monica Abbott, and the stellar southpaw did her part in also allowing only one hit.
The two had too much firepower for its opponents, with Osterman striking out nine and Abbott eight. In the opener, Abbott relieved her long-time friend by pitching the seventh, and in the closer, it was Abbott going the route.
Osterman, who was an All-America at Tennessee but never won the national championship, did win a gold Olympic medal in 2004 and a silver with Team USA in 2008, looked as good as she always did and shut down three straight batters in the sixth before Abbott took over in the seventh, the regulation frames in the sport.
Amazing, Abbott was also an All-America but also never won the NCAA title. Both pitched in an era that included UCLA, Arizona, and even Oklahoma, but as good as the Volunteers and Longhorns were in winning their respective Southeastern and Big 12 titles, they never hoisted the national championship trophy.
Whereas Osterman had to get herself back in playing form, Abbott had been hurling for years in Japan and just settled in like it was an everyday game. She had been with the 2008 Olympic team and now came on to relieve Osterman in the seventh inning and strike out the side. Then she took the ball for game number two, where she picked up two runs in the second and one in third.
Both games were played in the same empty cavernous 30,000-seat stadium, foreshadowing the unfortunate look of this pandemic Olympics in which spectators are not allowed.
But the site was symbolic. Fukushima was chosen as the location for the first two rounds of the softball tournament and one baseball game in order to honor the area’s recovery after the March 2011 nuclear disaster that was caused by a devastating earthquake and tsunami.
Earlier in the stadium, host Japan turned back Australia, 8-1. in a non-group contest that got the Olympics off to their unofficial start more than two days before the opening ceremony. Later in the day, the Aussies nipped New Zealand, 2-1, in Group G, the same group with the United States and Canada.
The first two games of these Olympics were a fitting tribute to the perseverance of the softball players and their sport, an immensely popular television product that received such a raw deal from the IOC, but still had the patience and the will to eventually return.
Wanting to get rid of baseball because it was laden with steroids and would never be able to send its best players to the Summer Olympics, the IOC took a secret vote in 2005 and somehow eliminated softball, too.
The decision, though, was ridiculous. For years, the IOC had been working toward bringing in more women’s sports to narrow the Games’ participation gender gap — and then it eliminated a women’s sport, softball.
Thanks to Japan’s love and participation for both sports, they once again will have their baseball and softball games on its home fields. Unfortunately, it might be fleeting, Paris is not expected to include baseball and softball in its 2024 Games.
But four years after that, the 2028 host Los Angeles likely will, ensuing the unusual Olympic journey of baseball and softball to continue.
Against a much-improved Italy team, the US’s Michelle Moultrie’s single drive in Valerie Arioto for the first United States run, and the only one it would need. Moultrie and Arioto have been members of the USA National Team for 10 years, throwing their heart and soul into the team even when there was no guarantee that they would ever see softball in other Olympic Games.