Will peace prevail in time for Team USA at the 2020 Olympics?
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Kasey Cooper wasn't thinking about the symbolism of the moment when she settled her feet in the batter's box during the sixth inning of the winner-take-all final game of the National Pro Fastpitch championship series. The Scrap Yard Dawgs rookie was only a week removed from being a part of Team USA as it qualified for next year's world championship, but healing rifts was not on her mind.
With two strikes and two outs as a scorching afternoon turned to a scorching evening, Cooper was thinking about the inside part of the plate. That was where the USSSA Pride beat her in her previous at-bat, when she rolled over a pitch and hit a weak ground ball. She fouled off one pitch, then one more. Then came the unmistakable contact. The ball sailed over the fence and ultimately won a championship.
"My only goal today was to compete," Cooper said. "If I was going to go down, I was going to go down swinging."
The Houston-based Scrap Yard Dawgs won the NPF title earlier this month in just their second season of existence. Team officials had been urged by others in the league to not sign Team USA players and had been told it would be impossible to win with them. Cooper and three of her teammates proved that false.
As softball prepares to return to the Olympics in 2020, Scrap Yard's success brings optimism that American softball can overcome a decade of hostility that has threatened to keep the best American players off the field for the sport's biggest stage. The dispute between the national team and the domestic professional league is rooted in the finite number of days on a softball calendar and the reality that players can't be in two places at once. Yet rather than find common ground, the two sides entrenched and the conflict festered for years. Players caught in the middle felt forced to choose between earning a paycheck in the NPF and representing USA in international competition.
"I imagine that USA Softball and the NPF will continue to work together moving forward," said Scrap Yard's Monica Abbott, the NPF championship MVP and a former Olympian who hasn't pitched for Team USA since 2010. "It's the best thing for softball in the United States, it's the best thing for Team USA, to put the best 15 players on the field in 2020, the best 15 most-seasoned athletes that can compete for a gold medal."
The NPF finals were also the latest reminder that the 2020 roster should include Abbott, the best softball player in the world at the moment. Scrap Yard coach Gerry Glasco suggested that what Abbott did -- pitching two complete games in one day against the league's best lineup -- should become the stuff of softball legend. What it should not be is a cautionary tale about collective dysfunction leading a sport to a self-inflicted wound. It should not be a reminder three years from now that the United States sent something less than its best team to the Olympics.
"It is really important that we come together for the athletes," said Karen Johns, a member of the national team selection committee and a former Olympic assistant coach and national team player. "Because these [Olympic] opportunities are very few in a lifetime."
What remains confounding is how softball is still a house divided three years before its return to the Olympics.
The NPF in its modern form was born in 2004. That it launched in an Olympic year, meaning its first season was contested without contributions from players occupied with preparations that produced a gold medal in Athens, offered a hint of the uneasy coexistence that would follow.
Yet there was cooperation in the early years. Abbott and Cat Osterman met as opponents for the 2007 NPF title, for instance, then played together in the 2008 Olympics. But the process was rarely seamless. International softball is almost entirely a summer sport. The NPF is entirely a summer league, a necessity both because of the crowded American sports calendar and because a sizable contingent of the league's players transform into coaches during the school year in order to supplement NPF salaries that don't cover many bills.
The short window between Memorial Day and Labor Day is the root of the tension between USA Softball and the NPF. One rises at the expense of the other. And once softball ceased to be a part of the Olympics after 2008, and after Team USA gained a measure of redemption for a loss in the Olympic gold-medal game with a 2010 world title, a core that included Abbott, Osterman, Jessica Mendoza and Natasha Watley left Team USA to focus on building the NPF into what they hoped was a sustainable professional league.
Of the players on the 2008 Olympic or 2010 world championship rosters, only Kaitlin Cochran ever played for the U.S. again. Not every player who left the national team for the NPF did so thinking it was a divorce instead of a separation, but at least for the past seven years, divorce was the effective result.
"I didn't want to see it that way, no, but it kind of felt like that," said the USSSA Pride's Andrea Duran, one of three 2008 U.S. Olympians still in the NPF. "I didn't want to close it permanently. I always wanted to keep my options open because there is nothing like playing for your country. But we had to make a tough decision in that part of our careers and that part of our lives."
Many found a new partner in Don DeDonatis, chairman and CEO of United States Specialty Sports, a company that promotes and organizes youth sports from softball to flag football to karate. DeDonatis bought into the league and set up the USSSA Pride in Florida in 2009, after the Washington Glory franchise folded.
That no individual in this country has invested more money in softball than DeDonatis over the past decade is almost beyond dispute. In a league with a $175,000 salary cap for a 26-player roster, most Pride players make well beyond that four-figure average through ancillary contracts tied to offseason appearances and work in the USSSA offices or camps and clinics. Players are treated like professionals. Former Pride catcher Megan Willis is now the team's assistant general manager. Jami Lobpries, who played in the league for several teams and then earned her doctorate in sports management at Texas A&M, is the vice president of the USSSA fastpitch program.
"I thought we could make an impact possibly by having a franchise and not just having a team in the league but having the best team in the league," DeDonatis said. "Try to have those kind of players that those kids want to be like -- the Natasha Watleys, the Jessica Mendozas and Cat Ostermans and the people who I thought were the best who ever played. It was a combination of giving our youth and our grassroots players a chance to want to be on the Pride."
But sometimes it is more hardball than softball. Indeed, the Pride and Team USA are in competition. USA Softball a branch of the Amateur Softball Association, which competes in the youth softball market with USSSA. Lofty ideals notwithstanding, the Pride represented a way for DeDonatis to raise awareness of USSSA. The pro team in many ways is a loss leader for the larger enterprise, and the absence of Pride players in international competition is glaring.
The two sides butted heads most notably over Keilani Ricketts, the two-time NCAA player of the year who pitched for Team USA in the 2012 world championship. She was set to reprise that role the following summer, until, she said (and a USA Softball official confirmed at the time), she was asked to make a multiyear commitment to the national team. She signed instead with the Pride. USA Softball to this day insists that it was not an attempt to strong-arm her into exclusivity, but the situation did little to foster a sense of cooperation.
Many of the best -- players such as Shelby Pendley, Madison Shipman and Sierra Romero -- were left, without anyone making it official, to choose between USSSA and USA.
In a first-person essay published recently by Flo Softball, two-time Olympian and longtime Pride outfielder Kelly Kretschman made clear that she felt the barrier was erected by USA Softball.
"He fully supports us playing for our country and understands that's a big deal," Kretschman said of DeDonatis in an espnW interview. "If that's something I want to do and other girls on our team want to do, he'd be more than willing to work with us. I pretty much guarantee that."
DeDonatis concurred, at least with respect to the 2020 Olympics and perhaps the 2018 world championship -- with the asterisk that he believes the national team should come together before a major tournament in days or weeks, rather the months it has taken in years past.
Yet that full support wasn't the experience of the only person who rivals Kretschman in University of Alabama outfield history. A four-time All-American for the Crimson Tide, Haylie McCleney was already a key figure for Team USA by the time she finished in Tuscaloosa. She signed a three-year contract with the Pride in the summer of 2016, with the understanding that she would complete the summer with the national team as it played in the world championship. But shortly after the 2016 NPF season, McCleney and fellow USA-to-USSSA players Aubree Munro and Kelsey Stewart received a contract addendum, a copy of which espnW obtained. It asked them to commit exclusively to the Pride in 2017, under penalty of paying back athlete endorsement money, should they leave the Pride at any point thereafter.
"It's frustrating that stuff like this has to come up," McCleney said over the winter. "It's frustrating because it's in the same season. I would love to play professionally when I'm not with Team USA, but Team USA was my priority because my goal is to be an Olympian. It has been my goal since I was a little kid. I'm not going to give that up just to make a few extra thousand dollars."
DeDonatis insisted that the players were previously and repeatedly made aware of an expectation that they commit to the Pride for the 2017 season. McCleney believed she was assured that it would be possible to continue on both teams. None of the Team USA players on the Pride roster last year signed the addendum. McCleney was traded to Texas before the season for what became the No. 1 overall pick. Munro and Stewart were released by the Pride prior to the 2017 season.
It is difficult to envision a young player in the WNBA or NWSL being placed in a similar spot. But tensions appear to be easing.
In all, nine members of Team USA also played in the NPF this summer, eight with either Scrap Yard or the Texas Charge and one with the Chicago Bandits.
In a departure from recent years, USA Softball had a visible presence at the NPF playoffs. Johns and Lauren Gibson, a recent Team USA retiree now part of the selection committee, were in attendance to evaluate players. Invitations will go out this fall for January's tryouts for the team that will compete in the 2018 WBSC World Championship in Japan. Johns' and Gibson's presence was an olive branch, one of several extended since Craig Cress took over as USA Softball executive director in late 2013 and faced the good news of Olympic reinstatement with the bad news of less USOC funding than in the days of old.
"It's going to be a situation where it is a little bit more pressure on us to work with other entities, such as the NPF, to figure out how we can work together," Cress said earlier this year. "I understand what they need, and I think they understand that we want the best athletes. We just have to figure out a happy medium there. Softball is a team sport. We can't take the best 15 athletes three days before the competition and take them somewhere and expect to do well."
Again, any progress is tempered by the reality that old habits die hard. If DeDonatis was reluctant to share McCleney with the national team, USA Softball isn't doing due diligence when it comes to communicating with one of the biggest NPF success stories.
An accomplished player at the University of Kentucky, Brittany Cervantes wasn't among the 20 athletes in her college class drafted by National Pro Fastpitch in the spring of 2012. Unwilling to retire, she attended an open tryout with the Chicago Bandits and made the team. She struggled for two seasons as a part-time player in a league in which most starters make only four figures.
By her third season, she led the league in home runs. She was the league's offensive player of the year the next season and the postseason MVP the season after that. Now with the Scrap Yard Dawgs, she won her second consecutive championship a few days ago. Along the way, she signed to play in the Japanese professional league, one of the only ways Americans can earn a full-time living playing the sport.
With room only for 15 players, an Olympic softball team is as difficult a roster to make as there is in sports. There are no guarantees that Cervantes, now or three years from now, would make that cut. But with her record as a hitter and her versatility to play multiple positions, including catcher, she has credentials. She was invited to try out for Team USA in January 2016 and was initially named to the "Elite" team, secondary to the senior national team.
She opted to decline the spot and returned to the NPF full-time. With no stipend available to USA players, she said she felt she couldn't do without her NPF salary.
Over the winter, Cervantes emailed USA Softball, she said, to inquire about the 43-player tryout that was held in January. She never heard back.
Asked about the lack of response, USA Softball provided a comment from Chris Sebren, the director of national teams, who said he couldn't address the specific email, but "USA Softball receives several emails each week from players and even parents inquiring about opportunities with USA Softball National Teams from the Junior Men to the Women's team." He added that they "attempt to reply to all of them in a timely manner."
But few of those who reach out "each week" compiled a .952 OPS in the NPF or played in Japan's professional league. Cervantes isn't some random dreamer to be flippantly dismissed.
It all begs the question of how much trouble the sport would be in had the NPF's two Texas teams, which share common ownership, not forged an almost immediate relationship with USA Softball. That happened despite what Scrap Yard general manager Connie May described as a distinct lack of encouragement from the rest of the league when she first signed USA players in 2016. In a separate statement, Scrap Yard management went so far as to say it was told that it was not allowed to sign USA players but did so anyway without official repercussions.
Team USA players helped Scrap Yard win the title. They might have cost the Texas Charge a spot in the playoffs, with their roster rarely at full strength because of international commitments. But their inclusion is a step toward sanity.
"As I started listening, basically, there was grievances on all sides that no one was willing to address," May told espnW. "So the absence of communication just caused people to make up whatever they wanted is the way I see it. Team USA has their thoughts on what happened. I'm sure Don has his thoughts on what happened. And somewhere in there is the truth.
"I think it's a conversation or two away -- maybe three -- from being resolved. We're fully committed to resolving it. We're going to allow Team USA players to always play with us."
The national team will include Abbott if she wants to be there. It will likely include McCleney. It could even include Cervantes. There will probably be at least one or two players who stuck with Team USA through the lean non-Olympic years before 2020. The result might be the best softball team the United States can put together playing in Tokyo.
The first test will be the willingness of NPF teams such as the Pride to potentially cede players to Team USA for the world championship. The next test will be USA Softball's willingness to limit those same demands in 2019 to ease the burden on the pro teams. Those are the only two trial runs for Tokyo 2020.
"It is in softball's best interest to be on that platform [in 2020] and have the game be featured in a way we're never going to do," NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf said. "It's just different. I don't care if we're the biggest professional league in the world: The Olympics is the Olympics.
"Softball being in the Olympics helps everyone everywhere."
Then she noted that the problem is figuring out how much time away from the league is reasonable for players. Because there is always a caveat when it comes to softball.