Pro softball players go to bat for league |

Pro softball players go to bat for league

When USA Softball opens its national team selection camp next week, only three of the 37 players in attendance will have played a game for Team USA in international competition.

Notably absent will be stars Jessica Mendoza, Cat Osterman and other members of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, which won the silver medal. Those players decided to commit full time to National Pro Fastpitch, which opens its season this weekend.

Former Olympic aces Monica Abbott and Osterman face off at 3 p.m. ET Saturday (ESPN2) in an NPF championship rematch between Abbott’s Chicago Bandits and the USSSA Pride (Orlando).

In 2005, the International Olympic Committee eliminated softball from the Olympics, resulting in deep cuts to USA Softball’s funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee. USA/ASA Softball executive director Ron Radigonda said this meant the national governing body was no longer able to provide stipends for national team members.

National Pro Fastpitch, however, is in a position to compensate players for its three-month schedule. The four teams have a $150,000 salary cap for rosters of 16 to 20 players, with salaries ranging from about $4,000 to $25,000.

In the past, players competed for both their pro and national teams, leaving NPF without its stars for much of the season. But this year’s national team schedule includes several exhibitions and tournaments, highlighted by the Pan Am Games in Mexico in October. Accordingly, USA Softball asked athletes to commit solely to the national team.

Faced with a tough choice, the Olympians have decided to throw their energies into NPF.

“We left it open when we gave USA Softball our answer, but a lot has to happen for us to come back,” Osterman said. “We need an environment where our athletes can have the support they need to build the sport. Hopefully we will get that from the national team and NPF.”

NPF Commissioner Cheri Kempf said she “hated the predicament” created by the national team’s demands. “It was an emotional decision for them … but we have to be realistic. We have owners spending millions of dollars to build this league. They cannot be without their marquee players for the majority of the season.”

While scheduling and financial issues might have led to the players’ decision, leaving behind the red, white and blue wasn’t easy. ” We played with the national team for a long time,” said 2008 Olympian Lauren Lappin, a Pride catcher and infielder. “But we’re focused on building opportunities for girls to play beyond college. And with the Olympics out, professional softball is where it starts.”

NPF, originally Women’s Professional Fastpitch in 1997, also includes teams in Akron (Racers) and the NPF Diamonds, based in Kissimmee, Fla. But the Diamonds will play home games in five venues to expand the league’s visibility, including Calgary, in a nod to softball’s growth in Canada.

Former Canadian national team member Danielle Lawrie said her country’s federation was willing to accommodate her NPF play, but she also is committing full time to the league. “Getting these players to commit for the summer, that’s the first step,” Lawrie said of her American teammates. “It’s what we need to grow the league.”

NPF and USA Softball hope they can collaborate on a shared goal — growing the sport. Radigonda said he appreciated those players committing to NPF who, he said, “are extremely important to us … not only as players, but as individuals.”

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Posted on: June 9, 2011