BEIJING - At great expense and with heavy hearts, they came to China to watch their sport die.
Their banner read:
"Goodbye Softball . . . And They're Keeping Ping-Pong?"
Danielle Pope, 23, and Megan Torbert, 24, traveled from Phoenix to watch the last Olympic softball tournament. They wore floppy Uncle Sam hats. Pope wept as the U.S. team fell to Japan, 3-1, in the gold-medal game.
Pope and Torbert were part of a packed, pro-Japan house at Fengtai Field that waited through a 20-minute rain delay in the top of the fourth inning. Pope, a former first baseman at Union University in Tennessee, held the banner aloft. Torbert snapped photos of saddened and sodden American stars receiving silver medals.
They are the last Olympic medals softball is certain to receive, since it and baseball were voted out of the 2012 games. Either could be reinstated for 2016 in another vote next year, but both sports will face the likes of rugby and golf - sports much more popular with the IOC's large base of European representatives.
"Rugby? That's pretty cool," Torbert admitted. "But, dude, we went to trampoline yesterday. Trampoline!"
Actually, trampoline is a discipline of gymnastics. Besides, table tennis isn't going anywhere - there's no such thing as Softball Diplomacy.
But yesterday, and the week that preceded it, should have provided enough evidence that the United States isn't unbeatable, and that softball shouldn't suffer from baseball's arrogance.
Major League Baseball and its union, for all of its posturing about growing its sport globally, will not make available its players for Olympic competition. Some IOC members, as well as the International Softball Federation, consider softball's exit a casualty of an IOC backlash toward baseball.
There also is the perception, not entirely inaccurate, that softball in the Olympics has been nothing more than a marketing tool for softball in the United States.
After all, America had won each of the three gold medals since the sport joined the Games in 1996. Until Canada took a first-inning lead a week ago, the United States hadn't trailed since 2000. Until yesterday, it hadn't lost in 22 games; it allowed one run in 2004.
Entering yesterday's game the U.S. team here had logged no-hitters from Monica Abbott against the Netherlands and Cat Osterman against Australia, scored a record 11 runs in a shutout against Venezuela and set a single-inning record with nine runs against China.
The Americans had allowed zero earned runs. They had the top five hitters, beginning with Crystl Bustos, who was at .500. Bustos and Jessica Mendoza were 1-2 in slugging percentage, homers and runs scored and were tied with nine RBI.
So, it's a little hard to digest coach Mike Candrea's contention:
"I feel people should get off our back and realize there's some parity in this game."
He's right. There's some. Not a lot, but some.
The U.S. team needed nine innings to beat Japan, 4-1, in a semifinal Wednesday . . . but the U.S. team also had beaten Japan, 7-0, in pool play.
Now, Japan is no joke.
Yesterday's starter, Yukiko Ueno, threw 21 innings Wednesday, since she followed the nine against the United States with 12 against Australia. That's three seven-inning games. Ueno also pitched the first perfect game in Olympic play in 2004 against China.
She was very good again yesterday.
She was staked to a 2-0 lead by the fourth inning. She allowed five hits, the significant one Bustos' fourth-inning homer. She also pitched out of bases-loaded jams in the first and sixth innings, and then stranded a leadoff hitter at first in the seventh thanks to three straight spectacular defensive plays.
U.S. starter Osterman lasted five and was pretty good, but she left two pitches high, which led to the two early Japan runs; a leadoff double in the third from Masumi Mishina, who scored on a single, and a leadoff homer in the fourth from Eri Yamada. Japan made it 3-1 in the seventh on an error - and Candrea's decision not to intentionally walk a batter with runners on second and third and one out.
All of which, in the grand scheme, means very little.
Leggy blond righthander Jennie Finch, who didn't pitch against Japan's lefty-heavy lineup, likely won't be playing in 2016. Neither will Bustos, or Mendoza, and maybe not even Osterman.
Candrea, a family man who has built a powerhouse at Arizona and simultaneously made USA Softball so good that it ate itself, effectively retired from international coaching last night.
Since softball's Olympic demise the ISF has instituted a reinstatement program, "Back Softball." It has made inroads in the Middle East and Africa, trying to grow the sport . . . and garner IOC votes.
"People thought this was women's baseball," said powerful Canadian IOC member Richard Pound, in the parking lot after the game.
They had better hope not, especially after the embarrassing exploits of the U.S. baseball team Monday against China, when a dirty plate collision led to a beanball war.
As for the U.S. team's softball invincibility, said Pound, "This drives a stake through the heart of that."
More like it poked a hole in that tire.
Not that it should matter.
In an era of women's erotic beach volleyball and, yes, trampoline, the Olympics needs all the softball it can get. *
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