With a spot secured in the 2020 Olympics, it's a whole new ballgame for U.S. softball stars

Jessica Mendoza, Jennie Finch and other Olympic gold medalists congratulate Team USA for clinching a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Games.

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Outs grow scarce quickly for the team losing a softball game. With only 21 available in regulation, the patience of early innings gives way in the blink of an eye to the pressure of late innings.

So while the United States wasn't in dire straits when it was down a run in the bottom of the third inning against Puerto Rico on Wednesday in the WBSC World Championship, it could see trouble from where it stood. A loss meant a second-place finish in its pool and a more difficult path through the medal round. And however unlikely that seemed, the unthinkable already had happened when Puerto Rico's Karla Claudio lofted a ball into the wind fueling a nearby typhoon for a home run off Monica Abbott, the ace's first run allowed in the tournament.

Enter Haylie McCleney, who steered a full-count pitch toward the right-center gap with a mix of bat control and power that few players possess. The United States' most productive hitter in the tournament pumped her fists at second base and implored her teammates to follow her lead. The Americans scored four in the inning to regain control.

The U.S. won that game against Puerto Rico. The Americans won all 10 of their games, including an epic 7-6 extra-inning comeback against Japan in Sunday's gold-medal game to defend the world championship they reclaimed from their archrival two years ago. McCleney was at it again in the final, starting another third-inning rally, but it wasn't her day to be the hero. Those moments belonged to Kelsey Stewart, who delivered the walk-off hit, and to Aubree Munro, Michelle Moultrie and all of those who engineered the 10th-inning rally.

Yet the most important moment of the day took place before the Americans even took the field. By virtue of earlier results, the U.S. joined host Japan as the first two countries to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the first time softball will be contested at the Olympics since 2008.

Kyodo News via AP

U.S. players spill onto the field to celebrate Kelsey Stewart's game-winning hit against Japan that clinched the gold medal at the world championships.

Given the digital subscription necessary to watch, not to mention the time difference, too few fans in America saw a rollicking gold-medal game for the ages. Just as too few saw the earlier moment that embodied why McCleney is not just the best center fielder in the world but one of Team USA's cornerstones. For like outs, opportunities are fleeting. What McCleney and the Americans seized in Chiba, Japan, wasn't just the opportunity to call themselves the best team in the world, but an opportunity when millions will be watching to show the world what that looks like.

"When you go to the Olympics -- everyone knows it," Abbott, the ace and lone member of the world championship roster with Olympic experience, said earlier this summer. "You see those amazing Olympic feats that athletes have -- the cross country skier dying across the finish line, performing beyond belief. Record-breaking runs, pitching perfect games, all these amazing athletic achievements that people dream of and work for literally their entire lives."

The Olympics introduced many to Jennie Finch, Jessica Mendoza and Cat Osterman. It is no coincidence that, along with the likes of Abbott, they remain among the most identifiable names in the sport. Without that Olympic stage, softball players have struggled to sustain stardom.

McCleney has lived that life of fame in miniature in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She may not command the same attention as a certain football coach or some of those whose autumn exploits helped fill his trophy case, but she isn't your average alum in the college town's coffee shops and barbecue joints.

Softball wasn't yet part of the SEC catalog when the sport debuted in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. It has since become a staple of spring across the South. Nowhere is that more the case than in Tuscaloosa, where the Crimson Tide have become Women's College World Series regulars and annually lead the nation in attendance in drawing around 80,000 paying fans to their slate of home games. Few players ever earned more adoration from those fans than McCleney, the affable four-time All-American from a few miles up the interstate in Morris, Alabama.

She doesn't walk many places in Tuscaloosa without at least one person recognizing her.

"I can accept extra benefits now, which is nice," McCleney joked. "I might get a free coke every once in a while."

College softball has never enjoyed a higher profile. New stadiums and national television are the custom for the upper echelon of Division I. The Women's College World Series continues to challenge or break attendance records on a yearly basis. The host facility in Oklahoma City will soon add a second deck of seating. If it is a niche sport, it is in a very comfortable niche.

Yet the bigger college softball gets, the more precipitous the fall into anonymity seems to be for its stars.

The domestic pro league, National Pro Fastpitch, deserves credit for perseverance during its 15 seasons of operation, but with an evolving array of teams, it has struggled to make inroads in a broader sports culture. The same is true for Scrap Yard Fastpitch, which left NPF after winning the 2017 title and now fields multiple rosters, with players including McCleney and Abbott, who tour the country. Even the national team had faded into the background when all it had was the world championship.

In 10 years of trying, nothing has so far come close to replacing the Olympics.

So while McCleney, 24, enhanced her standing as the world's pre-eminent center fielder during the tournament in Japan, leading the U.S. in batting average and on-base percentage and ranging far and wide in the spacious outfields of international softball, a world of uncertainty awaits her return. This will be the first offseason in which she doesn't have the amenities of a college athletic department close at hand, either at Alabama or the past two years as a graduate student at Florida Atlantic. She will spend much of the time traveling around the region and country putting on camps and clinics, trying to find her own time to train when not busy teaching the next generation.

"That's what is going to pay the bills," McCleney said.

The previous generation will attest that no one ever got rich by being an Olympic softball player, either. But from training stipends from the U.S. Olympic Committee to increased sponsorship opportunities to merely greater name recognition creating greater demand for those same clinics, qualifying for 2020 offers opportunity. An opportunity to make the most of talent but also to use the platform to bring people to the sport.

McCleney is poised to be a beneficiary.

Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

Haylie McCleney was the most productive U.S. player at the plate during the world championships.

No one on the current team has a bigger combined following on Twitter and Instagram than McCleney, albeit a virtual pulpit that pales in comparison to the reach of Olympians like Simone Biles, Chloe Kim, Katie Ledecky and Mikaela Shiffrin -- or Finch and Mendoza, for that matter. America makes a star out of even the most reluctant personality every four years if it comes attached to breathtaking talent. It is just easier with someone as self-effacingly confident and charismatic.

"I love connecting with fans, talking to fans," McCleney said. "The community of softball is so small, and I think that's what makes things like social media so important. We're getting stories about why people love us, so we can put a better product out there on the field for them. Feeling that connection, as we go through toward 2020, we're going to need that support, we're going to need that backing when we go on tour."

It was on one of those tours in 2008 that McCleney first saw Olympians for herself. She grew up more of a Tennessee Lady Vols basketball fan than any kind of softball fan. Pat Summitt's sustained excellence had more pull than even her Alabama roots. But on the verge of entering high school and starting to get serious about softball, McCleney turned out that night in Birmingham.

"The one thing I do remember crystal clear is watching Cat Osterman throw a bullpen," McCleney said. "I've never been a pitcher. It wasn't for me -- every time I threw a ball I got so mad at myself. But it's funny because I'm wearing No. 8 now, and obviously Cat was wearing No. 8 at the time. That was one of the biggest things to me that stood out from watching those Olympic teams."

Softball's long-term Olympic future is murky. Along with baseball, it returned to the program as part of a new initiative to give host countries some say over the inclusion of sports. Thus its slim hopes for 2024 in Paris likely depend on the IOC valuing continuity between Tokyo in 2020 and Los Angeles in 2028.

It is dangerous to tie too much of the sport's future to a week in Tokyo. But perhaps it can be the bridge. Perhaps one more generation of stars made on that stage will give post-college softball more time to grow into maturity.

It's an optimistic vision, but it's an optimistic time.

"This year just feels different," McCleney said. "We know that the goal moving forward is 2020."

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