U.S. softball team going out with a bang

BEIJING — Under normal circumstances, perhaps you would be talking about their pitching.

And why not? No one has ever seen pitching like that of the American softball team. Koufax and Drysdale never pitched like this. In seven games, the United States has thrown three no-hitters, three one-hitters and a two-hitter. Opponents are hitting a staggering .042 against them.

Yet the Grim Reaper is sitting on the rightfield fence.

In another time, perhaps you would be talking about their hitting.

And why not? The lineup looks like Murderers' Row these days. Already it has set Olympic records for home runs and runs scored. There are days, like Monday against China, when the U.S. seems to flex its muscles and suddenly nine runs have appeared on the scoreboard in the bottom of the first.

In the distance, however, there is the sound of funeral music.

This is what it looks like when excellence holds a going-out-of-business sale. The sport of softball is going to be extinct at the Olympics, shoved out by IOC bureaucrats who see nothing Chariots-of-Fire-like in the sport. There will be no softball in the 2012 Olympics, and it is an uphill battle for the sport to rejoin the Games soon after that.

And still, the Americans thunder on.

Because, really, what else can they do?

Time is running out. They have two games, perhaps three if they stub their toes, and then they are done. Perhaps forever. There will be no call from the governor. You've heard of dead men walking? As far as the Olympics are concerned, softball players are Dead Women Running.

Already there is talk of how they will go out. Some athletes have talked about leaving their cleats on the field. Some have wondered if there will be tears. For now, however, all they can do is think about a fourth, and probably final, gold medal.

There are those who will tell you that is the problem, that the Americans are simply too good for their own good. On the other hand, the Chinese seem to dominate table tennis, and the Kenyans are pretty good at distance running.

"If Michael Phelps can win eight gold medals, why can't we dominate?" asked pitcher Monica Abbott. "That's what the Olympics is about, having dominating performances."

Five of their seven games have been decided by the runs-ahead rule (the warm and fuzzy way to say "the mercy rule"). Could even Phelps slow these women? So far, they have outscored opponents 53-1. The only run scored against them was unearned, following a dropped fly ball, an illegal pitch that advance the runner and a sacrifice fly.

So marvel at their success. And then watch as the Olympics throw them out of the park.

"When I heard we had been voted out, I was stunned, heartbroken," pitcher Jennie Finch said. "Softball is at an all-time high, not only in the U.S. but all over the world. To see it taken away is heartbreaking."

The word "absurd" also comes to mind. Look around these Games at all the silly sports — several kinds of shooting, two kinds of martial arts, two kinds of wrestling, trampoline, rhythmic gymnastics — and the sport that doesn't suit the suits is softball? Are you kidding me?

For the record, the Olympics are also showing baseball the door, but that's more understandable. Unlike basketball and hockey, there seems to be no real interest by baseball in getting its top-level players in the Olympics. After all, mid August is a time for pennant drives, remember?

Frankly, baseball doesn't need the Olympics, so it makes some sense if the Olympics decide they don't need it back.

Softball is different. Winning in the Olympics is the pinnacle for this sport. So why not dare the world to catch up — as it did in basketball, for instance — instead of giving it a death sentence?

Again, it's easy to accuse the U.S. of having too much excellence, but that isn't all of it. Remember, the U.S. was a dropped fly ball from losing the gold medal in Sydney. More likely, it has to do with only 131 nations playing the sport. More likely, it has to do with being lumped in as the female version of baseball. More likely, it has to do with the expense of building stadiums for both sports.

In the meantime, Don Porter, the 78-year-old president of international softball who lives in Plant City, wants to talk about Back Softball, the movement to get the sport back in the Olympics. He talks about sending millions of dollars worth of equipment to other countries, about trying to plant the seeds of the sport in the Sudan and Iraq and Saudi Arabia. He talks about getting e-mails from the mothers of young girls who want their daughters to play in the Olympics.

For softball to come back in 2016, it has to compete with other sports that want in: baseball and squash and rugby, golf and roller sports and karate.

In the meantime, the players keep winning. And all anyone can talk about is closing time. For a player, it can be depressing.

"We're thinking about a gold medal," pitcher Cat Osterman said. "It's frustrating, because we're putting on a great show, and all anyone wants to talk about is the future."

Two more games. That's all they are promised. Win while they can, that's all they can do. For the Americans, they have to bury the competition before the Olympics can bury them.

When you think about it, that sounds like a pretty good epitaph, doesn't it?

U.S. softball team going out with a bang 08/18/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 2:55pm]

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