A silver scar draws Cat Osterman back to the red, white and blue
Cat Osterman wasn't the last to learn of her own comeback, which became official Tuesday when she accepted an invitation to try out for Team USA as it builds toward softball's Olympic return in 2020. But the closer she got to pitching again, the clearer it became that she was far from the first to know.
Kelly Kretschman, a longtime teammate and friend and former coaching colleague, told Osterman's boss, Texas State softball coach Ricci Woodard, last fall that the school's pitching coach still had more innings to throw. Osterman just needed to figure that out for herself.
When Osterman finally made up her mind, Team USA coach Ken Eriksen, an assistant when Osterman made her Olympic debut in 2004, told her that he had waited years for that call.
And when Stacey Nuveman Deniz spotted Osterman throwing a bullpen session this summer and the pitcher admitted her plans with a guilty grin, her former Olympic catcher all but rolled her eyes at the idea that it was a surprise. Granted, Nuveman Deniz didn't show up at the ballpark expecting to see Osterman pitch that particular day. But she was pretty darn sure she'd see her pitch again someday.
Those who knew her best knew. They knew she walked away three years ago with outs still remaining in her left arm. More than that, they knew there were still outs she needed to record.
"This is just purely my perception, nothing she's ever said [to me], but I have to think there is a feeling of unfinished business," Nuveman Deniz said. "Just on a personal level for her."
You don't become one of the greatest players in a sport -- for so many years Osterman and Monica Abbott were softball's version of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird -- without a competitive perfectionism that remains foreign to most peers, let alone the rest of us. One disappointment rankles more than a thousand successes soothe.
So she isn't coming back at 35 years old just because she can, or because softball is back on the big stage.
Nuveman Deniz was right, as catchers often are. Osterman isn't coming back to win a gold medal. She's coming back to win this gold medal, the one the U.S. lost to Japan in 2008, already knowing the International Olympic Committee had eliminated the sport.
"There's unfinished business that has obviously eaten at me for a long time," Osterman said. "To be able to be part of hopefully going and making that complete again, it's a driving force.
"To be able to have an opportunity to do that, honestly now that I've made the decision, it's what motivates me every morning."
All of which might be quixotic if declining skill had pushed Osterman out when she retired three years ago. But hitters appeared little closer to solving her nearly a decade into her professional career than when she arrived at the University of Texas as a teen phenom.
She went 15-4 with a 1.16 ERA and a league-best 164 strikeouts in 121 2/3 innings in her final season with the USSSA Pride of National Pro Fastpitch in 2015. The glove still came to rest above her head before each pitch, the familiar languid pose accentuating a 6-foot-3 frame. Then the arms swung forward and the long fingers unleashed spin as devastating as Abbott's speed. She was still as good as anyone.
That 32-year-old pro looked much like the 21-year-old Olympian.
She retired after that season not because time made her arm mortal but because she was convinced her future was in coaching, especially considering the uncertain state of the international game. She had balanced playing and coaching with stops at DePaul and St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, but she wanted to devote her full energies to Texas State.
So perhaps it also had to be coaching that birthed the idea of a comeback. As the sport was getting its Olympic reprieve for 2020, Eriksen encouraged her to enter her name in the USA Softball coaching pool. She submitted her name but withdrew before the process could go anywhere. Coaching college athletes was one thing -- she used up her own eligibility long ago. But the idea of coaching players she knew, or at least believed, she could still beat brought old wounds back to the surface.
If she was going to be a part of beating Japan and reclaiming Olympic gold, she wanted the ball.
A pitcher always wants the ball. She wanted it in the gold-medal game in 2008.
A lot of things went wrong for the U.S. in a 3-1 loss in that game, not the least of which was a masterful pitching performance by Yukiko Ueno, Japan's ace then and now. But in the mind of the other starting pitcher that day, culpability rested with the person who put her teammates in a hole. It was Eri Yamada's solo home run off Osterman that put Japan ahead 2-0.
As part of a team-building exercise at Texas State before she decided to come back, players and coaches brought items of significance to them and shared the stories. Osterman brought her Olympic medals, the gold from 2004 and the silver from 2008. Usually able to call on a good poker face, she found herself in tears.
"It's the highest point in my life and the lowest point in my life, in my opinion," Osterman said. "Softball is not my life; it is what I do. But I experienced the greatest joy I think I can ever have, being on top of the world, and then I spent 12 months absolutely beside myself because we got a silver. But how many people don't even get to say they won a silver?"
Once she made the decision last fall to come back and confirmed with USA Softball that it would consider her for an invitation to the tryouts that will determine the 2019 roster expected to form the core of the Olympic team, she gradually shifted from working out for the sake of working out to working out with a purpose. Never fully separated from pitching thanks to coaching, she nonetheless began to throw more seriously this summer. She popped up for bullpen sessions like the one Nuveman Deniz saw before an NPF series in Florida and threw against Abbott's Scrap Yard Dawgs closer to home in Texas.
This is a new world for her. She got married after retiring and now fills the role of step-mom to a preteen daughter. She remains intent on coaching and will limit her comeback to the national team -- the NPF or other professional opportunities require too much additional time and travel. But when she goes out in the yard in the evenings and sets up a net to throw, there is also something very familiar, something dormant until now.
"I love coaching, don't get me wrong, but there is an element of actual pitching that I don't think I realized I missed," Osterman said. "It's the competitiveness, even just with myself, of making the next pitch better than the one before. When I'm working out, it's those kind of things that are fun again."
The youngest player on the U.S. roster in 2004, Osterman could be the oldest if she makes the cut for 2020 (depending on fellow aspirant and Olympic alum Kretschman, who is 39). And even more than Abbott, who stepped away from the national team along with Osterman in 2010 but continues to dominate in professional settings in both Japan and the United States, she will likely face scrutiny about her decision. Without Osterman, the U.S. beat host Japan to win a world championship this summer. A new generation may believe it's their turn.
Carrying four pitchers is a luxury the U.S. may not be able to afford on a 15-player Olympic roster unless one of them is also capable of contributing elsewhere. Abbott proved all summer that she is the ace of any U.S. team. That leaves two, or at most three spots for Osterman, Kelly Barnhill, Rachel Garcia, Danielle O'Toole and Keilani Ricketts -- not even counting other contenders like Delanie Gourley. Osterman isn't promised one of those spots, but she intends to earn one of them.
"Since I made this decision, and even before then, there has always been a hesitation how it's going to be received," Osterman said. "I learned over my career that you're not going to please everybody. There are going to be people that, for whatever reason, are going to be unhappy.
"I get it. There are a ton of girls that dream about going to the Olympics, and obviously if I come back and prove I can still do this, then there is somebody who went to worlds whose spot I'm going to take.
"Do I feel a little bit bad about that? Sure, but at the same time, there is unfinished business."