Tough sell for USA Softball program

First baseman Valerie Arioto is one of just six holdovers from last summer on Team USA. Graham Hays/espnW

OKLAHOMA CITY -- If you were in need of a hammer to beat yourself over the head with the symbolism, there were plenty available as workers went about disassembling the temporary structures that expand capacity and permit ASA Hall of Fame Stadium to become softball's grandest stage during the Women's College World Series.

As that task progressed, many of the same players who had performed in front of more than 70,000 fans the previous week again went about the business of turning double plays, making diving catches and hitting home runs during national team auditions on an auxiliary field. Their new audience numbered about two dozen at its peak. A group of kids in matching jerseys faced little competition as they chased a steady stream of foul balls.

It wasn't a like-for-like comparison, of course. There is considerably more reason to sit and swelter in the Oklahoma heat while watching college teams settle a national championship than to watch players divided by no affiliation stronger than randomly assigned blue shirts and red shirts go through drills and scrimmages. The three-day Team USA tryouts were open to the public, but they weren't designed or staged for spectators. All the same, the sounds of work across the way and the space to spread out underscored a sense that even as college softball thrives, the United States national team does what it can to survive.

What remains unchanged is what it means to wear that particular uniform, no matter how many people are watching.

Among those trying out for the first time was former University of Oregon pitcher Jessica Moore, only recently "former" after completing a senior season in which she was an All-American and the Pac-12 pitcher of the year.

"It's really interesting because you don't really realize it until you put the gear on," Moore said while wearing a shirt and visor emblazoned with the USA logo during tryouts. "Then you realize that you're among some of the elite athletes in the nation, kind of in the world. Once you put that in perspective, you kind of have to take a step back and think about that."

She eventually made the cut, one of four pitchers on a roster of 18 players that will represent the U.S. in tournaments in Oklahoma City, British Columbia and Puerto Rico in July and August, all as the national program builds toward the 2014 ISF world championship in the Netherlands. There it will look to reclaim the gold medal it lost last summer to Japan, ending a streak of seven consecutive world titles.

During the months between this summer's games and next year's tournament, USA Softball will also learn if it will have a chance to reclaim another title it lost to Japan. Dropped from the Olympics after 2008, when Japan upset the United States for the gold medal, softball is one of three candidates to return in 2020. The International Olympic Committee will vote in September about whether to add softball and baseball's joint bid, wrestling or squash. There is a sense that given the contentiousness of wrestling's recent elimination and Major League Baseball's apparent unwillingness to allow players to participate, wrestling is a more likely winner than softball/baseball.

If left without the exposure and funding that comes with the Olympic stage, the national program's current reality may prove permanent.

The team that travels to the Netherlands next summer for the world championship (which accelerated from a four-year cycle to a two-year cycle after the sport was dropped from the Olympics) will almost certainly look little like the one that went to Canada for the 2012 event. Even that team was composed largely of players competing in their first major world tournament, but it was nonetheless a one-time experience for many. Some players turned their full attention to coaching careers. Others signed instead to play in National Pro Fastpitch. In all, the roster announced a week ago includes just six holdovers from last summer: pitcher Keilani Ricketts and position players Valerie Arioto, Amanda Chidester, Lauren Gibson, Michelle Moultrie and Rhea Taylor (a seventh player, Taylor Hoagland, was a part of the team that competed in the 2011 Pan American Games).

All but four players on the current roster either have remaining college eligibility or concluded their college careers this spring. Without much of the funding it received from the United States Olympic Committee during the Olympic years, USA Softball, a branch of the nonprofit Amateur Softball Association, struggles to retain players. Without stipends to offset the time commitment, it is quickly becoming effectively a college all-star team.

In her third summer with the team but just one year removed from her time at the University of California, Valerie Arioto is one of those four old-timers. As such, she was unsure if she would be back this summer, or if she needed to go about starting the rest of her life, i.e., take a job to pay the bills. But with a motivational assist from United States coach Ken Eriksen, who reminded her she had the rest of her life to work, she was back at first base for the selection camp in Oklahoma City after spending the preceding months at home in California giving softball lessons, coaching youth teams and finding the time and means to train on her own.

One of the most disciplined, productive power hitters in the sport and a charismatic, outgoing figure, she should be one of the faces of the national team for much of the next decade. The math no longer works that way. Even next year's chance at world championship redemption is too far in the future to allow a commitment beyond this summer. But she's here now.

"Coach Eriksen is the type of coach where you want to play for him," Arioto said. "Even though it's like, 'OK, I can't really go any further with softball at this point,' he's the type of coach who motivates you to want to come back. He's so inspiring. He's the one who, when my mind wasn't made up, kind of gave me that extra push to know that was the right decision for me to keep playing."

It's difficult to argue any national team coach had a tougher job than Eriksen. After the United States won the 2010 world title, many of the sport's elite players committed themselves to NPF, the four-team professional league in its 10th season also fighting for footing in a crowded marketplace. That means Eriksen is working on the field with younger players than his predecessors, players who need more time together and get less. He's also left to seek out funding from beyond the traditional sources. All while holding down what is a part-time job that comes in addition to his duties as head coach at the University of South Florida.

"I feel like right now it's 365 days a year talking softball," Eriksen said. "And it's 365 days a year of going out and shaking hands and making friends with as many people as you can, not just for USF but also for USA. I don't mind doing that; I love promoting the game, I love teaching the game. It does get encompassing sometimes. It does get frustrating."

It's a difficult balance for a program that needs a strong base of support at home, where it competes for attention with NPF during the active summer months, but for which the future is partly dependent on the sport's international growth in places like Latin America and Europe to force the hand of the IOC.

"You have to get through the quagmire somehow, and you figure out ways to do it," USA Softball executive director Ron Radigonda said. "We have had many changes in my 15 years here -- of where we were before I got here, where we were during what I would consider to be the heyday of the sport in the 2000 and 2004 [Olympics], when we were really on a roll with the things that we were able to do. But we've put the World Cup of Softball on ESPN [for eight years], where we created an event and put it together and broadcast it out to 140 countries on an annual basis.

"If I gave up easily, I would have given up a long time ago. It's not in my DNA."

Optimism is part of Radigonda's job description, but it was nonetheless with perhaps a note of pragmatism that the executive director, amid touting the strength of softball's credentials ahead of the September vote, also noted that several of the candidates to replace current IOC president Jacques Rogge have expressed a willingness to consider -- down the road -- expanding the program beyond 28 sports, the barrier creating the existing logjam.

It's a big picture that makes it all too easy to ignore the small picture. To ignore this team. A hard thrower with more potential than polish coming out of high school, Moore matured into a complete pitcher with few peers in the college game. She will begin coaching this fall, something she would like to pursue as a career, one in which many in the sport feel someone so cerebral and so competitive will excel. But what fans see from her with the ball in her hand this summer should be just the start, not the coda to a career. This will be a team worth watching when the World Cup rolls around in July. It would also be a team worth watching for years to come.

Everyone stops playing at some point. But for a time, the national team gave a small number of the best players in the country an opportunity to reach their peaks as their bodies and skills matured in the years after college.

"I couldn't imagine what I would be able to develop in the next few years," Moore said. "I feel like I'm just starting to get good. I'm really starting to come into my own self and understand pitching and understand the game of softball and understand a little bit of everything.

"If I could play for however many more years, I could only imagine what I could do with it."

Perhaps it will remain the stuff of her imagination. But for at least a summer, she earned the uniform that every girl in this country still dreams of wearing.

That, at least, is what Team USA will always be.