USA Softball botches Ricketts' deal

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Keilani Ricketts won't be wearing the red, white and blue this summer after a dispute with USA Softball caused her to part ways with Team USA.

USA Softball's most famous loss came against Japan in the gold-medal game of the 2008 Olympics. The national program's most damaging defeat came years earlier without a pitch ever being thrown, when the International Olympic Committee voted to boot the sport from its quadrennial program following the competition in Beijing.

Before it played a game this summer, the national team lost its best hope of easing the sting of both setbacks.

Unlike the two previous instances, there is no Japanese opponent to praise or bureaucratic body to bemoan this time.

It appears this one was self-inflicted, a botched attempt to guarantee the future that left Team USA without the biggest star of the moment.

The United States will take the field Thursday against Canada for its first game in the World Cup of Softball, an event in its eighth year that brings together several of the best national teams for a tournament in Oklahoma City. It will unexpectedly do so without Keilani Ricketts, a two-time national player of the year at the University of Oklahoma, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2013 Women's College World Series and a two-year national team veteran.

I never said I don't want to play this summer. I never said that. I just said I wanted to make the [contract] decision at the end of the summer, and they said they can't wait that long. They need it now.
Keilani Ricketts, on not signing a deal with USA Softball

Ricketts was on the roster for the third year running when it was announced June 14 after a three-day selection camp in Oklahoma City. As recently as June 26, she retweeted a message from the Oklahoma softball account that encouraged fans to watch her and former Sooners teammates Lauren Chamberlain and Destinee Martinez with Team USA in the World Cup. But she will not be in the circle against Canada or any other team.

That much, unfortunately for fans, everyone agrees on. Figuring out why gets a bit messy.

USA Softball national team director Ronnie Isham said Ricketts told him July 3 she would not play for the team this summer. But Ricketts said the parting was not her choice. She told espnW she was informed if, by July 1, she did not accept a multiyear contract offer to represent and play for USA Softball over the next four summers, she would not be allowed to play in the team's three tournaments this summer.

"I never said I don't want to play this summer," Ricketts said. "I never said that. I just said I wanted to make the [contract] decision at the end of the summer, and they said they can't wait that long. They need it now."

Asked if that was his recollection of their conversation, Isham said it was. That Ricketts did not balk at playing this summer ought to stop suggestions she quit on the team, as was originally announced by USA Softball. Isham also said the two sides discussed a multiyear agreement, although he declined to discuss specific elements of it, other than to say it was an effort to make her the face of the national program.

"The bottom line is she had business opportunities and she made a business choice," Isham said. "Unfortunately for us, it did not include us."

Both parties seem to agree the separation came down to a choice, but if USA Softball felt it was a choice she made, Ricketts felt it was one she wasn't allowed time to make.

Ricketts said she was approached by USA Softball about the contract at the conclusion of the selection camp, which took place less than a week after she completed her college career in the World Series. By her telling, the agreement would have precluded her from playing in National Pro Fastpitch, the four-team summer professional league in which her rights are held by the Florida-based USSSA Pride. (Initials and a roster loaded with former national team stars notwithstanding, the United States Specialty Sports Association is not affiliated with USA Softball.) She had already committed to spend this summer with the national team, but she said she expressed a desire to wait until it returned from its final summer stop, the Pan-American Games qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico in August, to decide her future.

"That's when I wanted to make my decision with the contract they had offered," said Ricketts, who did not have an agent during the process. "But they told me I needed to sign it before the World Cup. They said I wasn't going to be on the field unless I signed it, and I just wasn't comfortable signing anything before the World Cup that was a long-term decision. They took it as a no."

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Ricketts, a two-time player of the year, helped Oklahoma win the Women's College World Series in June.

Isham said all players on the current roster were asked to make a commitment, though not contractual, to remain through next summer, a world championship year. That is understandable, even pragmatic. The team that played in the 2012 world championship looked almost nothing like the team that played in the same event two years earlier. And the roster this summer shares little in common with that of 12 months ago. Continuity is problem when there is no longer Olympic-level funding necessary to compensate players at anything close to the level needed to keep them for more than a year or two as they transition out of college.

Ricketts was the wrong player with whom to try to force the issue.

These aren't desperate times for the national program. Not yet. It is still on national television as much as the NPF. It still has names that matter in softball, young stars like Valerie Arioto, Lauren Gibson and Michelle Moultrie. It can still win world championships. But the saga with Ricketts feels like a bit of creeping desperation, a power play from an organization that hasn't come to grips with its diminished strength.

USA Softball needed Ricketts. She is the highest-wattage star to come out of college softball in a number of years, at least since Danielle Lawrie, the former University of Washington standout who also won back-to-back player-of-the-year honors. But considering the complicating factor that Lawrie happens to be Canadian, Ricketts represents the biggest name available to USA Softball since 2010, when recognizable stars like Monica Abbott, Jennie Finch, Jessica Mendoza, Cat Osterman and Natasha Watley left the national program to focus on strengthening NPF, now in its 10th season.

Clearly, USA Softball felt the same way. It's why it came up with a plan to make her the face of the program in such an unusually formal, contractual way that it offered no other player. But it badly overplayed its hand and revealed a schism within a sport that doesn't have the market share in the post-college game to withstand a house divided.

As long as softball was an Olympic sport, USA Softball had leverage. The professional league offered neither the competitive carrot of standing on an Olympic medal podium listening to the national anthem nor the exposure to fans and sponsors offered by that stage. The national program could strongly encourage players to pick Team USA or the pro league and not split their time between club and country the way players do in a sport like soccer. That leverage no longer exists, but USA Softball still acts as if the NPF is a nuisance and a competitor rather than a potential partner to get through lean times.

U.S. Soccer is a backer of the National Women's Soccer League. The WNBA has incorporated USA Basketball and the national team into its All-Star Game in the past. USA Softball and the NPF have essentially no relationship.

NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf confirmed Wednesday the league has been rebuffed on a number of proposals for cooperation, and USA Softball executive director Ron Radigonda dismissed any potential benefits thereof in a June interview.

"The nature of where we like to be is we like to be playing in a situation where we're playing Brazil or a Puerto Rico or a Japan or an Australia," Radigonda said at the time. "Because for us to have the necessary profile in the minds of the IOC members [to reinstate softball], we have to show this game as an international game. And playing other domestic teams is certainly not going to be something that makes them step up and take notice."

Never mind that, even in recent post-Olympic years, the national and junior teams played exhibition games against non-NPF domestic competition. Or that NPF has its own international footprint with Japanese players on three of the league's four teams. The two entities are kept separate. That's the world in which the Pride become competitors for Ricketts and USA Softball felt compelled to put the pressure of an artificial deadline on its offer.

USA Softball appeared convinced that the "business choice" meant Ricketts would not play for the national team in 2014, instead presumably signing with the Pride. (That may be a self-fulfilling prophecy; she said she is in ongoing discussions with that team after the break with the national team.) Ricketts said nothing had been decided, and she returned to the national team even after she visited the Pride in June and received a contract offer from them for the remainder of the summer. Either way, it's difficult to envision what harm would have come from the national program agreeing to table any contract discussions until August.

Yes, continuity matters, but will the handful of innings a fourth pitcher earns this summer in her place really be the difference between gold and silver in next summer's world championship?

USA Softball asked for a commitment and then turned around and put a clock on someone who had been among the program's most loyal participants. That's a strange way to sell a partnership. Intentionally or not, it timed all of this to coincide with the World Cup, ensuring a mess that would hang over its biggest event of the summer and make Ricketts look bad in what is essentially her second home in Oklahoma.

This was a game USA Softball couldn't afford to lose, and whatever else is true, it kicked the ball all over the place from the beginning.

"I think it's unfortunate for USA Softball, and I think it's unfortunate for Keilani," Isham said. "But on other hand, we all have to move on."

It's also unfortunate for softball. Summer is just getting started, and USA Softball is already 0-1. A big one.

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