Softball's Olympic return hinges on MLB
Jennie Finch is a wife, a mother of two and a successful businesswoman. Since retiring from softball she's run the New York City marathon, written a book and launched an online store.
In other words, she's busy. But until her voice no longer resonates on the international stage, she will always make time to campaign to get softball reinstated onto the Olympic program.
Which is why she didn't just accept an award at the recent IOC World Conference on Women and Sport in Los Angeles, she used the opportunity to deliver an impassioned, emotional speech to some of the same IOC members who had voted her sport out of the Olympics in 2005.
"Honestly, I wish there was more I could do," Finch said after delivering the rousing speech. "I didn't really know if this was the right place to do this, but I figured I might not have a better opportunity to be in front of all these IOC members so it was now or never."
Finch's conclusion was a logical one. Softball was dropped from the Olympic program when it failed to garner a majority of the 105 votes cast. The final vote: 52-52 with one abstention was heartbreakingly close. One vote cost softball its spot on the Olympic program. And when you hear many of those IOC members mistakenly thought of softball as women's baseball, it's even sadder.
"A lot of the IOC members, for whatever reasons, kept seeing us as women's baseball," said Don Porter, the head of the International Softball Federation. "We tried to do everything we could to dispel that. Our sport is similar to baseball in a lot of ways, but it's also very different. To people that are not real familiar with it, sometimes they don't see that difference."
Baseball's problems were plentiful: performance-enhancing drug use, the refusal of Major League Baseball owners to allow their players to compete and even the length of the games.
OK, so education has to be the answer, right?
Explain the differences between softball and baseball to the IOC, show them how much passion there is for the sport, use celebrities such as Finch or ESPN commentator Jessica Mendoza to raise the visibility of the cause. That would be the play, right?
Not necessarily. Not at all, actually.
No, the IOC members Finch so eloquently and passionately pleaded with a few weeks ago in Los Angeles are not the people who need convincing.
The only group with enough clout to get softball back on the Olympic program? The 30 owners of major league baseball franchises and baseball commissioner Bud Selig.
Neither softball nor baseball is getting back onto the Olympic program until major league baseball decides it's willing to create a 10-day break in its schedule to allow its players to compete in the Olympics -- as the NHL does with hockey and the NBA and WNBA with basketball.
Softball's fate is tied to baseball, so the two sports need to present a united front in their effort to re-enter the Olympic program.
"The feeling is that it might be good to combine if it's going to be advantageous to both of us," Porter said. "The problem is, if major league baseball doesn't participate, then that's not going to be advantageous."
Why is it so important for major league baseball to allow its players to participate?
We like to think of the Olympics as the last bastion of amateur sports. But that hasn't been true for decades. The leaders of the Olympic movement care about the same things major league baseball owners do: profits, popularity, corporate sponsorships and television rights fees and ratings.
Just look at the two sports that were added to the program for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro: golf and rugby. In other words, two sports that boast some of the most popular professional athletes on the planet. And those athletes will not only compete but walk in the Opening Ceremonies, boost television ratings and draw in new corporate sponsors.
"I think the IOC was also working towards looking at something different in the program," Porter said, diplomatically. "Different types of sports. Sports that they think would be more popular, for television, more sponsor interest."
Finch and Mendoza are probably the only softball players with any kind of Q-rating, and they have both retired from the national team. So talk of softball "going it alone" is somewhat naive in a world where the IOC has clearly put an emphasis on adding sports that would bring the world's most popular, marketable athletes to the Olympics.
It also doesn't fit with the IOC's guidelines, which recommend that each sport have a male and female competition -- a key reason women's boxing was added to the 2012 games.
"Unless they develop men's softball, they'll have to combine with baseball," said Ching-Kuo Wu, an IOC member from Taiwan who said he voted to retain softball in 2005.
"But baseball doesn't have women's baseball and softball doesn't have men's softball. So that's why the IOC recommended they go together in the first place. Support each other so they can become one sport. But it's not easy when you have two organizations."
No, the only way for softball to get back on the program is to partner with baseball and for the best baseball players in the world -- major league baseball players -- to participate in the summer games.
Unfortunately it doesn't seem like that will happen anytime soon.
"We remain committed to working alongside the International Baseball Federation to get baseball back into the Olympics as it should be," MLB spokesman Pat Courtney wrote in an e-mail.
"While the timing of the MLB schedule and the Summer Olympic program schedule has not been conducive to MLB players participating, MLB organizations have been very cooperative with non-major league roster players (vast pool of minor league and even 40-man players from each of the 30 Clubs) and will make every effort to cooperate in all ways feasible moving forward.
Riccardo Schiroli, a spokesman for the IBAF, also points out that many future major leaguers have competed in the Olympics.
"Team USA won their gold medal with Ben Sheets throwing a complete game in the championship game against Cuba. Team USA had Doug Mientkiewicz at first and at the time of the Games he had already played over 100 games in the big leagues," Schiroli said. "In those games Dave Nilsson was on Australia's roster and Sydney featured a few players who made it to the Majors in a matter of months: Daisuke Matsuzaka played for Japan, [Jose] Contreras was the ace on Cuba pitching staff and Jason Simontacchi represented Italy.
"Also, consider that professional players are not only the ones under contract with MLB organizations. NPB in Japan and KBO in South Korea provide pretty good competition. I would say that the fact these two teams competed for the trophy in the 2009 World Baseball Classic final is something we cannot forget."
All of these are good points. And all of them are especially valid considering the fact that soccer, by far the world's most popular sport, does not have its best players in the Olympics either. The men's Olympic soccer tournament is mostly an under-23 affair, with just three "over-age" players allowed on each roster.
The problem? It's a lot harder to get invited back onto the Olympic program than to stay there once you're in. It takes a simple majority to stay but two-thirds to get back in.
"There's this whole mechanism that you have to follow, but it's not impossible," said Nicole Hoevertsz, an IOC member from Aruba. "But I think we have to fight and continue making the efforts to fight and get softball back on the program."
There are a lot of people willing to take up that fight. Finch is ready and willing. So is Mendoza. Porter has been at it for seven years already. Softball-friendly IOC delegates like Wu and Hoevertsz will continue their support.
But it's time to consider whether the fight is being waged on the wrong battlefield. Or rather, on the wrong ball field.
Softball may have been dropped from the Olympic program because it was unfairly associated with baseball and its problems. But it might not be able to get back in without them.