Tokyo Olympics: U.S. softball dream team motivated sport's return

Feb. 19 (UPI) — Fans and players have been deprived of softball as an Olympic sport for a dozen years, and Team USA plans to remind everyone this summer in Japan what they’ve been missing.

It’s an incentive that even helped lure one of softball’s best out of retirement.

“Playing again in 2020 wasn’t really on my mind until about 2 1/2 years ago,” said pitcher Cat Osterman, who retired in 2015 before returning to Team USA in 2018. During the gap, she said, “a lot of [players] didn’t get the chance to compete in the Olympics and showcase our sport.”

Team USA lost to Japan in the 2008 gold medal game — the last time fans saw softball at the Olympics. Team USA had won all previous gold medals since 1996. The loss snapped a 22-game winning streak.

But this dream team, composed of the world’s best players, isn’t thinking about revenge.

“For most of us who were part of the 2008 team, we tried to forget the loss — you tried to put it behind you as quickly as you could,” Osterman said. “It wasn’t exactly a good, memorable moment for us.”

The Americans have steamrolled recent foes and qualified for the Olympics on their first try. They beat Japan in July’s USA Softball International Cup championship. Team USA is the world’s No. 1 team, while Japan is No. 2.

Six teams will compete in the Olympics. Besides the United States and Japan, they are Italy, Mexico, Canada and Australia. The tournament begins July 22, with the gold and bronze medal games set for July 28. Games will be played at Yokohama Stadium in Yokohama and Fukushima Azuma Stadium in Fukushima.

The faces of Osterman, 36, and fellow ace pitcher Monica Abbott, 34, will be familiar for softball fans during the Summer Games, but a lot is different within the sport — and for female athletes overall — compared with 2008.

“I think the landscape has changed because our culture has changed,” Osterman said. “A lot of people now have more access to female athletes due to social media. Back in the 2004 and 2008, that wasn’t exactly the case.”

Social media’s role

“When [fans] have more access and we can actually prove [athletes] have more influence, then obviously you want to get paid for that influence like athletes now do,” Osterman said of players who use social media to make money off the field.

“In female athletics, we have a platform now. We have the [proof] of what our influence does for people and the right to essentially equal or more pay if you are winning.”

Megan Rapinoe became one of the faces for a movement for equal pay for players on the United States Women’s National Team — compared to the men’s team — during the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Her social platform has grown by more than 470,000 followers since the tournament, according to Twitter. Her increased popularity has also resulted in new endorsements and global recognition.

Osterman has gained more than 50,000 followers since Jan. 2011, according to Twitter. Abbott’s following has climbed from 460 to more than 34,000 in the last decade.

“I think the biggest thing, especially for women’s soccer, is that they win,” Osterman said. “Why wouldn’t you pay your winners? As a culture, we’ve grown and TV has also embraced female athletics. … [Social media] keeps adding opportunities for female athletes.”

Abbott signed the first $1 million contract in National Pro Fastpitch history in 2016. She cited the 2015 U.S. women’s soccer team’s World Cup win as a potential motive for her team offering her the record-setting pact.

“The sport is really growing, but growth takes time. I think we’ve made huge strides since the 2008 Olympics,” Abbott said.

Best players in world

“Softball has always been where the Olympics showcases the best of the best,” Osterman said. “Everybody sends the best players so the world can see how great our sport is.”

Abbott and Osterman are the only players on the 2020 roster with Olympic experience.

Osterman won a gold medal in the 2004 Summer Games, while leading Team USA with 23 strikeouts. Abbott made her Olympic debut during the 2008 Summer Games, pitching the Americans into the gold medal game by beating Japan in the semifinals.

Abbott and Osterman are among the best players on Team USA, but the Summer Games should elevate the popularity of their teammates.

Former Florida star Aubree Munro Watson will be one of easiest players to spot in Japan. Team USA’s catcher has a distinct playing style and is known as one of the team’s most competitive players.

Team USA also has a sure-handed middle infield, including ex-UCLA shortstop Delaney Spaulding, ex-Washington second baseman Ali Aguilar and ex-California first baseman Valerie Arioto. Former Michigan star Amanda Chidester is known as one of National Pro Fastpitch’s best hitters and brings a balance of power and contact to the batter’s box.

Two-time NCAA player of the year Rachel Garcia pitches for Team USA. She went 29-1 with a 1.14 ERA and 286 strikeouts last season at UCLA. She also hit .343 with 11 home runs.

Garcia and former two-time Pac-12 player of the year Ally Carda (UCLA) are the right-handed arms on the pitching staff, complementing left-handed Osterman and Abbott.

Abbott is college softball’s all-time wins leader, while Osterman has the best strikeout rate. They rank first and second, respectively, in career strikeouts.

“I think it’s going to be a fun game. We have a good mix of speed and power,” Abbott said. “The key for us will be putting it all together at the right time.”

Abbott threw a no-hitter Sunday against Oklahoma State as part of the Stand Beside Her Tour. Major League Baseball is the presenting sponsor of the training tour, which is helping Team USA prepare for the Summer Games.

“We have a pretty good group of girls who have been around the USA Softball program for several years, so there is a lot of pride in our history and the standards we set,” Abbott said. “We also know the world is getting better at softball. Japan obviously won the last gold medal. … We have a big challenge ahead of us, but we are ready.”

Team USA faces the New Mexico as part of the Stand Beside Her Tour at 11 p.m. EST Thursday at the Big League Dreams Complex in Cathedral City, Calif.

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