Softball's swan song?

Japan shocks U.S. for gold in sport's last Olympic game - for now

Fall of an American power

Beijing 2008

August 22, 2008|By Melissa Isaacson | Melissa Isaacson,Chicago Tribune

BEIJING - Afterward, as his players sat grim-faced and stricken, their silver medal a shiny symbol of rare failure, U.S. softball coach Mike Candrea would tell them he was proud of them. And he would tell them something else.

"As athletes, it's awfully tough to handle disappointment, but that's athletics," he said. "As I told the girls tonight, 'There are going to be other things in life that are more tragic than tonight.' "

Candrea knows tragedy. He lost his wife, Sue, to a brain aneurysm just weeks before the Athens Olympics four years ago. But he was not issuing ominous warnings as much as trying to put the U.S. team's 3-1 loss to Japan in last night's gold-medal game into some sort of perspective.

"I think these young ladies are very well-prepared for what life has for them in the future, and I'm very proud of them," Candrea said. "We will move on."

Surely, they will. But as an Olympic sport, softball will not.

In July 2005, the International Olympic Committee voted to drop baseball and softball from the 2012 Games.

Many theories abound, including one that had steroid use in American baseball leading the IOC to do away with the sport and softball got caught in the fray. Another suggestion had the decision being political.

But the most common theory was that the U.S. women were just too good for their own good.

Winning the first three Olympic softball gold medals in convincing fashion leading up to Beijing only added fuel to that argument. And as the U.S. steamed into the gold-medal game against Japan having outscored its opponents 57-2 in this tournament and 108-3 over the past two Olympics, it was hard for the Americans to protest very convincingly.

Their flat loss to Japan - decided by uncharacteristically sloppy play defensively and a typically opportunistic and powerful offense leaving seven runners on base - did not merely frustrate the Americans. It made them combative.

"It's the people on the outside that really don't understand the game and really thought we were so dominant," Candrea said. "We've played great softball. But if you're in the dugout and on this team, you know that any team can get hot on any given night. We have a lot of respect for Japan. They matched us pitch for pitch and got the key hit when they needed to.

"I really kind of feel that maybe people would get off our back and realize there is some parity in this game because I've always thought the rest of the world was getting better. It's nice to see a full room of reporters here because we've had an empty room most of the time. Who knows what will happen? Sometimes the game looks easy, and it really isn't."

With just eight teams in the round-robin Olympic competition in softball and baseball - by far the lowest participation of any sport in the Olympics (water polo is the next lowest with 14, then volleyball with 15 and basketball with 19) - there will likely not be too much protest worldwide.

There was news of an announcement today of a "major new international softball event to take place next year," likely a World Cup-type competition. And the softball community is hoping the IOC's desire to expand women's sports might be to their advantage when the next vote by the IOC's General Assembly comes in February to decide whether to include softball as a sport in 2016.

The U.S. players have been arguing the past three years - and the past two weeks - that the rest of the world is closing the gap and that they are not as dominant as it might appear.

But will their loss ultimately save their sport?

The Americans were as incredulous as they were disappointed yesterday.

"They're going to take this sport out?" shortstop Natasha Watley said. "This just shows you why they shouldn't. Those guys work their butts off and so do we. On any given day, right? It makes no sense to take this sport out, especially now."

"Obviously," left fielder Jessica Mendoza said, "we don't want to lose. But I think it's interesting because everyone's talked about how we win all the time and no one can compete. And it was proven today that teams can. And the sport should remain. It's global. It's international. It's been a beautiful last two weeks of softball."

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