Universal language of softball

TBD Graham Hays/espnW

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Common sense suggests that it helps if a pitcher and catcher are on the same page.

For Monica Abbott and Kazuki Watanabe, that doesn't necessarily mean the book is in the same language.

As Abbott and Watanabe stood together between innings of a recent National Pro Fastpitch game between their Chicago Bandits and the USSSA Pride, the American pitcher and Japanese catcher appeared to be engaged in the sort of dialogue familiar to pitchers and catchers in such settings. Before long, though, the conversation expanded, the battery joined first by Bandits coach Michael Steuerwald and soon thereafter by translator Masashi Takano. With the coach's point made in two languages, Watanabe followed Abbott into the dugout, trailed by Takano, and continued their conversation as their teammates went to the plate in the bottom of the inning.

It all felt a little disjointed, but Rosetta Stone and Berlitz can produce results. In the season's first installment of the league's best rivalry, Abbott struck out 13 batters in a 1-0 win.

For the better part of a decade, first at the University of Tennessee and then in National Pro Fastpitch, Abbott and catcher Shannon Doepking were all but a package deal. The ace pitched to other catchers during her time with the United States national team and in other settings, to be sure, but odds were good that if Abbott was throwing a softball in her home country, Doepking was probably the one throwing it back to her. But Doepking, now the head coach at Amherst College, retired as a player after the 2012 NPF season. No potential replacement in this country had as much experience catching Abbott. Someone in Japan did.

One of the Pride hitters who was tasked with solving this new battery on that particular summer night near Chicago (and the only one to finish with multiple hits), Natasha Watley, is also in her fifth season as Abbott and Watanabe's teammate on the Toyota team in the Japanese professional league.

"It's amazing to see how over the five years they've grown as a battery," Watley said. "And that they're able to communicate, and they're always constantly working on something new. Monica always has something new up her sleeve, and Kazuki is part of it because Kazuki loves to be her catcher and work on new things."

"I think that's made Monica a better pitcher over the last five years."

There is some hope that this summer may have a similar effect on professional softball as a whole, that Watanabe and other Japanese players can help NPF expand its horizons.

For years, American and Canadian softball stars have crossed the Pacific to play professionally in Japan, as each of the 12 teams in the Japanese league is allowed up to two foreign players. In fact, it is difficult to be a full-time professional softball player without playing in Japan. As with women's basketball stars who earn more money playing overseas than in the WNBA, salaries available in Japanese softball are more favorable than those in the NPF. (Obligations in Japan complicated matters when last season's NPF playoffs were delayed by rain -- although most made it clear they would alter plans, key players for both the Chicago Bandits and USSSA Pride had scheduling conflicts in Japan that resulted in the cancellation of the NPF championship.)

However, unlike the WNBA and various iterations of professional women's soccer in the United States, softball talent traditionally flowed only one way. Lauren Jackson starred for the Seattle Storm. Marta did the same for a variety of teams in WPS. But Japanese softball stars stayed in Japan (where they are employees of the companies who sponsor the teams and typically remain employed, in some capacity, even after their playing careers). This is the 10th season of NPF, but until this summer, Mayumi Murakami had been the only player who made a move from Japan to National Pro Fastpitch when she played one season for the Texas Thunder in 2005. And even that wasn't a direct move, as Murakami had relocated to the United States several years before her NPF stint and played for Mt. San Antonio College in California.

However, without major national team commitments this summer and with lobbying from players like Abbott and Watley, Japanese teams allowed Watanabe, Toyota teammate Haruna Sakamoto, Toyota Shokki's Ayumi Karino and Hitachi's Eri Yamada to play in the three-month NPF season. Sakamoto plays with Watley for the Pride, Yamada plays for the Bandits and Karino plays for the Akron Racers. Yamada and Karino both drove in runs in Japan's 3-1 win against the United States to win the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics. Outside of pitching legend Yukiko Ueno, Yamada may be the most recognizable name in Japanese softball. She is tied for the NPF lead in home runs and trails only Bandits teammate Megan Wiggins for the league lead in RBIs. Karino, too, is producing, and Sakamoto is carving out a role on the Pride's star-studded roster as well.

Still, it's Watanabe's transition behind the plate that is the most intriguing. A swing knows no language barrier. Hitting a rise in Rosemont is the same as in Tokyo. The skills by which a catcher excels are not so solitary.

"She's feisty little fighter," Watley said. "She's not the strongest hitter on [Toyota] or whatnot, but defensively, she's a leader. She's our team captain. She's very vocal, she's always making sure that everybody is in their spots and their places. She's a good leader -- we don't even speak the same language, but I always feel like she's making sure I'm in the right spot or I have information about the pitcher or whatnot."

That's a more difficult role to fill when she doesn't know the opposing players, let alone the language. But she knows Abbott, who currently leads the league with a 0.18 ERA in 39 innings.

Through the interpreter, Watanabe expressed all the sentiments that might be expected of her when asked about various aspects of her summer in the United States. But words paraphrased by an intermediary inevitably lose something in translation. The wry smile that crossed her face as she glanced at Abbott when asked to assess the pitcher's proficiency in the Japanese language told a richer story.

You don't need to speak the same language to tease someone. You just need to understand them.

"Our relationship is the same, and we do a lot of the same things," Abbott said. "In Japan, Kazuki obviously knows the batters and the coaches a lot more, so she's more of like the teacher to me in Japan. Whereas here, right now, early in the league, I'm being more of the teacher to her as much as I can."

Along with Ueno and Cat Osterman, Abbott's name gets thrown in any conversation about the best pitcher in the world. It's Abbott who pitched the Bandits to the NPF championship in 2011 and Toyota to three consecutive championships in Japan. And when she needed to find a catcher who understood her, there was really only one place to look.

"It's just amazing to see the art of softball," Watley said of Abbott and Watanabe. "They don't speak the same language, but they have their own language they create."