Too-good U.S. team hurt softball's future

First in a series of previews,

leading to the Olympics.

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Jennie Finch is probably making her final Olympic appearance.

TAKE A GOOD look at Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman and Jessica Mendoza in China, because you might not be seeing them wearing red, white and blue again.

At least, not on network television, and not in an Olympics.

They got too good. They suffered from an association with baseball and its reluctance to institute a strong anti-doping program and allow access to the best players. There was anti-American sentiment; unequal representation at the sport's highest level; poor game growth globally.

All of that hurt. So, after Beijing, softball is out of the Olympics. In 2005, like baseball, softball was voted out of the 2012 Games in London. Both failed in a reinstatement bid in 2006.

Unlike baseball (which has a reinstatement program but lacks marquee names), softball is trying like crazy to get back in.

Spearheaded by a campaign called "Back Softball," a year-old, 10-point plan aimed at impressing the International Olympic Committee enough to reinstate the sport, the International Softball Federation is making a concerted effort to grow the sport in the Middle East and Africa.

The next vote, in October of next year, will determine whether softball, baseball, and five other sports (karate, rugby sevens, golf, squash and roller sports) will be included in 2016.

By then, the ISF hopes to have changed the sport's profile as a U.S.-dominated, male-run, baseball-reliant entity - all of which helped run it out of the Olympics after a popular run that began in 1996.

"Potentially, all of those things are true," said ISF president Don Porter. "Really, what hurt us most, I think, was that a number of IOC members weren't familiar with our sport. I got the feeling they thought we were women's baseball. And, unfortunately, baseball has its negatives."

The stigma of baseball's lax drug-testing as well as the refusal of Major League Baseball to halt its season so Major Leaguers could play served as a kiss of death.

In 2005, led by a group of European countries, a 52-52 vote, with one abstention, doomed softball; only a simple majority was needed. Softball failed to be reinstated, 47-43, in 2006.

Notably, no European team has ever won a medal. The U.S. has won every gold, with China, Japan and Australia splitting the rest of the medals.

Also, of the 110 members of the IOC, 53 are Europeans, three Americans. None of the 15 spots on the IOC's executive board is held by an American; eight are European.

In Beijing, Porter and his staff will endeavor to bring IOC members to their state-of-the-art field at the Fengtai Sports Center. There, they likely will be awed by another U.S. powerhouse.

After losing three games in Sydney in 2000, Team USA regrouped, hired University of Arizona coach Mike Candrea . . . and went 9-0 with eight shutouts in Athens in 2004. A compilation of attractive, charismatic, well-spoken women, they outscored the opposition, 51-1, with plenty of IOC heavies watching.

Oops?

"I think so," said slugger Crystl Bustos. "I think some countries are, like, 'We're never going to be like that.' ''

Through "Back Softball," the ISF is working to change that perception. As of May, four more countries added softball federations, putting the number at 130, 20 shy of the ISF's 2009 goal. Among more recent additions: Iran, Iraq and Jordan. The ISF notes that, since there are no restrictions on softball uniforms, "religious sensitivities" in Asia and Africa can be observed.

Therein lies softball's best hopes for reinstatement, and Porter knows it.

"That's right on track," Porter said, pointing to the $2.25 million in equipment the ISF has distributed since 2005. "We're looking to get in to more of the Muslim countries. In Africa, we want to get into even more schools."

The ISF recently opened an Eastern European regional training center outside of Moscow, along with centers in Italy and the Dominican Republic, and it hopes to turn the Fengtai site into an Asian regional training center.

As for the administration of the sport, many national federations share an office with baseball; the ISF wants softball to be autonomous by 2010. It would help to distance itself from baseball if more women helped run the ISF.

"We're trying to build that up," Porter said.

To that end, five of the 15 ISF executive council members are women, compared with only two in 2005. Porter estimates that women now occupy 40 percent of top administrative jobs in national federations. Half of the umpires in Beijing will be women.

None of that will have any immediate effect on the malaise that will surround the sport in China, evidenced by Team USA's refusal to acknowledge the real reasons why the sport was voted out.

Understandably, perhaps, Finch refuses to allow that the world got sick of seeing her and her teammates roll, and her coach is no different.

"I thought the sport was growing by leaps and bounds. Tickets were sold out," Candrea said.

Actually, only about half of the tickets in Athens sold. The tickets in China are gone, but then, the Chinese team is a contender.

"Give me a good reason why you don't want softball around, and I would [accept] it," Candrea said. "But nobody's given me a good reason."

Porter has supplied plenty. His recent discussions with IOC members make him hopeful.

If the vote was held tomorrow, would softball be on the docket for 2016?

"I'm somewhat optimistic," Porter said. "From what I've seen the past 2 or 3 years, yes."

Still, in 2016, Finch and Mendoza will be 36, Bustos, 39. Their primes will be past.

"It's sad, because there are some of us that could play in 2012 and there are a few of us, if we wanted to play further, we could play in 2016 [if] it comes back," said 25-year-old pitcher Osterman, who will be 33. "It's sad, and yeah, a lot of us have started to kind of think we might have to get real jobs."

So, get an eyeful now. *