Dominant U.S. Softball Team Hopes Sport Will Return |

Dominant U.S. Softball Team Hopes Sport Will Return

Source: THE NEW YORK TIMES By John Branch

BEIJING — Of all the numbers used to measure success in softball — batting averages, earned run averages and so on — no digits are receiving the scrutiny of 51-1.

The United States outscored its opponents by that margin at the 2004 Games, gliding undefeated to its third consecutive gold medal and making a case for being the most dominant team at a single Olympics.

The Americans might have been too good for their own good. In 2005 the International Olympic Committee decided to bounce the sport out of the Games, beginning in 2012. Softball’s male cousin, baseball, was also eliminated.

The United States is still dominating the world, but it refuses to see the Beijing Games as the last hurrah for the sport. Instead, the Americans see it as a chance at resurrection: they hope they can change committee members’ minds by October 2009, when the program for 2016 is determined.

“I think we have a shot of getting back in,” catcher Stacey Nuveman said. “It’s over for now, but it’s not over for good.”

The question that riddles the softball community is what has to happen for the sport to be reinstated. It would seem that another 51-1 scoring differential would be the last thing the sport needs.

The best thing would be for a country other than the United States to win the gold medal. At the very least, organizers want to see close games, as in 2000, when the United States lost three times, to three opponents in extra innings, before winning five in a row to secure the gold medal.

It all puts this American team in an awkward position as the eight-team tournament starts on Tuesday. At a news conference in which players and Coach Mike Candrea were stretched across a stage behind a table and microphones, players took turns defending their sport. And they also insisted they would not do anything to make the games closer.

“We’re athletes,” Nuveman said. “There’s no athlete in the village, on the planet, that goes in hoping to lose. Would that help the cause? Who knows. That’s all speculation. We’re walking in, going for the ‘W’ every time. We’ll let the politics fall where they may, but we’re going for a fourth gold medal.”

How this became Team USA’s problem is a little unclear. The Americans have long set the standard, but have been waiting for the competition to catch up and offer a fuller challenge. Several players said competition around the world was rising, even if the won-lost records at the Olympics and the world championships do not support that contention.

In three Olympics, the United States is 24-4. The team is 106-10 in 11 world championships, with half of those losses coming in the first two tournaments, in 1965 and 1970.

“The games are getting closer and closer,” pitcher Cat Osterman said. “By no means are we absolutely running over everyone. I think that helps our sport. I think people need to take notice of that more.”

The true competition in the eight-team Olympics field is expected to come from Japan and Australia. At the 2005 World Cup, Japan beat the United States to win the championship. Japan also beat the Americans at the 2006 world championships in Beijing. The Americans avenged the loss in the gold-medal game.

Softball officials felt they were too closely linked to baseball, which was bounced largely because of the seeming indifference toward the Olympics by Major League Baseball. Performance-enhancing drug scandals further eroded baseball’s chances when the I.O.C. vote was taken in July 2005. Unlike softball, there have been few cries of support to reinstate baseball to the program.

“It is a different sport than baseball,” outfielder Jessica Mendoza said. “I think our goal has been to show what these women can do, not just us as Americans but all the other countries that participate. Between now and the vote next year in October, our goal is to really show the sport, get it out there, and educate as many that will be in that room next year in October so they know what we’re about.”

That is the difficult part. Softball officials do not know if these Games can resurrect softball, but they hope that crowds will fill the 10,000-seat stadium here. And it will help that China, the host team, is a medal contender.

At the Athens Games in 2004, the home team’s roster was filled with Americans of Greek descent. Crowds were generally sparse at Greece’s only softball site. Athens officials considered tearing down the stadium after the Olympics, but it survives, unused.

Perhaps shaking that memory from 2004 — of a stadium erected for little more than a short tournament, in a country unfamiliar with the game — will be just what softball needs. But it would not hurt if the Americans, despite their best intentions, do not outscore their opponents 51-1.

Posted on: August 10, 2008