Cup isn't perfect, but it'll be what softball needs in post-Games world

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A steady stream of young girls, most decked out in softball jerseys, filed down to where Lisa Fernandez sat watching in the stands a few rows behind home plate.

Clad in Finch, Osterman and Mendoza shirts, or the rainbow spectrum of their own youth league colors, the girls patiently waited through each half inning before queuing up for autographs as a police officer tried to keep the steady stream from turning into an unmanageable flood.

Heavy rains may have kept the World Cup of Softball crowds from swelling, but more than a hundred girls found their way to Fernandez for scribbled proof of an encounter with greatness.

Never has softball looked stronger than it did in those moments when a generation of future players and fans broke through the rather ordinary surroundings of a summer afternoon in Oklahoma City by treating one of the sport's best players as no less of a superhero than David Ortiz, Tom Brady or Tim Duncan.

Yet, when the clouds cleared and the crowd swelled to capacity a day later, the atmosphere shifted from sedate to energized for Saturday night's showdown between the United States and archrival Japan. And this year's Cup provided more fuel for the fire of those worriedly counting down the days until next year's Olympics in Beijing and wondering what will happen next for softball.

Barring a decision by the International Olympic Committee to reinstate the sport for 2016, next summer's Olympic Games are the last in which softball will be played. Lumping the sport together with baseball, the IOC voted in 2005 to eliminate softball, denying the sport its most visible showcase over the last decade.

"Before it was an Olympic sport, the World Championships were the big event," Team Canada coach and 1996 Olympian Lori Sippel explained. "And then, the Olympics came in, and we showed just how big of an event we can make it. And obviously, what happens at the Olympics is that everybody pays attention. Those who maybe never saw softball [say], 'Well, it's an Olympic event. It must be spectacular.'"

It was spectacular enough for Fernandez, already one of the sport's best players, to emerge as a national name as part of the United States' 1996 gold-medal team and later as the anchor of gold-medal winning teams in 2000 and 2004.

"I think we were a sport that was high-profile within our aura of people," Fernandez said. "But after those '96 Games, I remember being at UCLA and going through the salad line and a professor of mathematics came up to me and said, 'I've never seen a softball game, but I know how to root for my country, and thank you for what you did in representing the United States of America.'

"That's when I knew softball had hit another level."

China, with its massive population, economic growth and state-sponsored sports infrastructure, is the kind of country where that process could be repeated as softball seeks to expand its horizons and entrench itself as a worldwide sport worthy of Olympic readmission.

By hosting the International Softball Federation (the international game's governing body) World Championships last year and next year's Olympics, China is certainly growing familiar with the game at its highest level. Michael Bastian, a longtime coach at the college, professional and national level in the United States, went to China to try to ready a national program that had fallen on lean times for the 2008 Olympics, and found a receptive audience.

"During the World Championships, it was amazing the excitement that grew throughout China," Bastian said. "Every game was on national television, and people got really excited because they didn't really realize softball existed. Right now, we are one of the top celebrity teams that the Chinese Olympic Committee has identified as being potentially a medalist or a gold medalist. … It's kind of funny. They really want us to be a medal team."

The Olympic flame can ignite interest in a sport like a spark touched to a bundle of kindling, just like it did for softball outside the sport's traditional Arizona and California roots. But without additional fuel for the fire, that kindling quickly burns away and leaves no greater trace than a few scattered ashes. With no Olympic future to build toward, that may be the case in places like China after 2008.

"Without the sport being in the Olympic Games in 2012, I really don't know if there will be a national team in China anymore, from what I'm hearing," Bastian said. "I don't know if they're going to give it the same type of funding they're giving it now. If we can win a medal, I think maybe some good things might happen and we might be able to get through that period of it not being an Olympic sport."

As the sport searches for another signature event or at least a bridge to Olympic reinstatement, how the six-team World Cup of Softball fills the void remains a topic of discussion. In just its third year, the event has already gained a high profile in this country.

Television ratings in the United States grew 40 percent last year, topping out with a 1.1 rating for the 2006 final game between the United States and Japan (a rating comparable with the NHL Stanley Cup finals). The World Cup is a chance for American fans to watch Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman and other marketable names during non-Olympic years -- the kind of appointment viewing they don't often get during the team's frequent trips overseas for other tournaments.

"I think it's been a tremendous boost for the sport," United States coach Mike Candrea said. "This event to me is very comparable to the College World Series, and I think for our sport, we need to have events that people can look forward to every year."

"This event could be a great event," Bastian said. "But it's seen from outside of the USA as not an international event, [but] a USA event."

Some in international circles believe the Cup is less a destination than a marketing device for USA Softball, a high-profile exhibition used in preparation for more important events.

Australia, one of the world's more competitive teams, passed on this year's event after playing the last two years. Japan came, but didn't bring ace pitcher Yukiko Ueno, who beat the United States to clinch the inaugural World Cup in 2005. Even China left its top two pitchers at home, instead opting to use the tournament to get a look at some of its young prospects in the circle.

"It's expected," United States assistant John Rittman said. "The year before the Olympics, nobody wants to show their hand, so you expect that. But at the same time, it gives some of the players who may not have that experience the time on the field to get that experience and play international competition at a high level."

Another problem moving forward in an Olympics-less world is the opportunity to grow the World Cup into a more significant event on par with the World Championships. Right now, USA Softball covers many of the expenses for the teams involved in the tournament, something that will become more difficult once the organization finds its own budget impacted by the fallout. Even if the core softball audience is growing by leaps and bounds in this country, the World Cup is still a softball-based event that may have difficulty attracting the kind of casual fans exposed to the sport in the Olympics.

"We've got our very best athletes right now, and the reason is because of the Olympics and because of the opportunity that they have to be able to afford to do what they're doing," Candrea said. "There will always be softball, but whether we're going to be able to capture and keep our older kids, I think that's when it might become a little more important that we get back in the Olympic Games."

While the debate about the game's long-term future rages on, the immediate impact is evident in the profiles of the players at this past weekend's Cup. They're the ones caught in the crosshairs, reared in a sport whose ultimate stage is disappearing in a blink of bureaucracy.

"Unfortunately, the window for some of the athletes here … the window is going to be almost closed," Sippel said. "We do have a young team, which means if there was another [Olympics with softball], they'd certainly be a part of that or have an even greater shot. And what they're saying is, 'This is your shot. I'm sorry you're 20 years old, but you've got to make this your shot.'"

And as the minutes ticked down to Saturday's game against Japan, fans lined up two and three deep along the third-base line fence where the United States had encamped and looked for a better glimpse of the stars. Faces painted red, white and blue mingled with hair colored in patriotic hues, with blue skies overhead and a raucous full house all around. It was a snapshot of everything the World Cup of Softball has the potential to be.

But to paraphrase Ben Franklin, it's not always easy to distinguish a rising sun from a setting one in a still picture. The World Cup isn't perfect. But, for now, it's just important that it's here.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college sports coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.