Athletes Unlimited just the beginning of the final act for Cat Osterman

Players celebrated the end of Athletes Unlimited's inaugural season on Monday, and learned on Tuesday the unorthodox professional softball league will be back in 2021. Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited

The inaugural season of Athletes Unlimited, the professional softball league with a self-professed desire to revolutionize the sport, came to a somewhat surprising close Monday.

Surprising not necessarily because Cat Osterman looked at times as if she was pitching by different rules en route to winning the first championship. There is nothing revolutionary in that. The lefty has befuddled world-class hitters for the best part of two decades.

Surprising because of the unfamiliar optimism that followed Osterman's familiar mastery.

Understand the world that the sport's greatest southpaw inhabits. Whether international competition or professional leagues, post-college softball is an existence defined by survival. Sure, players scream with joy in the seconds after winning titles. But their next breath might as well be a sigh of relief. They made it through another summer. Dwindling bank accounts didn't go bust. Neither did the teams, leagues and organizations that nominally employed them but in many cases struggled to provide them with truly professional environments.

The coach of the U.S. national team worked gratis for half a decade. Nearly 25 teams took the field in National Pro Fastpitch, a league that nonetheless never had more than seven members at any one time. The most stable pro environment was thousands of miles away in Japan.

That grinds the hope right out of a person, replaced by pragmatism at best, cynicism at worst. But there was Osterman on Monday night offering unadulterated optimism.

For a year that was supposed to mark the end of the road for Osterman, 2020 sure feels as if it instead became the beginning of something. The beginning of her final act, a renewal of passion and skill instead of a hurried pursuit of redemption. And the beginning of a new era for the sport that she and 56 others ushered in. An era of optimism, if not guaranteed success.

"I think we're all leaving here in the next couple of days nowhere close to the same person we were when we came in," Osterman told her fellow players on the field after the final out Monday. "Thank you for five weeks of incredible softball."

Reigning NPF MVP Amanda Chidester was the first U.S. Olympian to sign with Athletes Unlimited in April, weeks after the International Olympic Committee postponed the Tokyo Games that were supposed to mark softball's return to the program for the first time since 2008. In all, more than 20 Olympians representing the U.S., Canada, Italy and Mexico eventually took the field in Athletes Unlimited, including eight from the U.S. team. But no personnel move lent the new league more immediate credibility than signing Osterman in May.

College softball has produced newer stars, but none have matched the competitive gravitas of Osterman and Monica Abbott. With offense on the rise, including in a league that produced 100 home runs in 30 games, the sport hasn't produced their equal in the pitching circle. They are incomparable. Athletes Unlimited didn't get Abbott, but it did get Osterman.

"I didn't know Cat coming in to this, but I did know she was a big piece we wanted in our puzzle, obviously," said catcher Gwen Svekis, a founding member of Athletes Unlimited. "So I was the one who called her months and months back, and she was kind of on the fence a little bit."

Osterman came out of retirement in 2018 to pursue another Olympic gold medal to add to the one she won in 2004 and erase some of the sting of the one that turned to silver in 2008. She made the U.S. team that competed throughout 2019, then made the Olympic roster last fall. She had it all planned out. She would compete in the Olympics, take a long-delayed vacation to Bali with her husband, try to have her first child and start a job with RBI Austin, a Christian-based baseball and softball program for inner-city youth at home in Texas.

As her 37th birthday approached in April, she was still trying to figure out if she could perform at the level to which she was accustomed to, if she would be able to find her groove again. Then the bulk of Team USA's pre-Olympic tour was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A subsequent opportunity to pitch for an independent team this summer evaporated. By the middle of summer, about the time she would have been heading to the Olympics and getting on with the rest of her life, the frustration peaked.

Then came Athletes Unlimited and six weeks of the innings she craved.

She pitched four shutout innings in her first start. Her second start produced a two-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts with the weekly title on the line, the first complete game she could remember throwing in more than a year. A captain every week thereafter and able to draft and develop chemistry with Svekis behind the plate, Osterman finished with a 1.53 ERA -- best in the league by nearly a run and a half. She effectively clinched the title with a week to spare.

It makes you wonder if she would have found that groove had 2020 proceeded as planned.

"I'm not 100 percent sure -- I lean more toward the side of maybe not," Osterman said. "On tour [with Team USA], there's four pitchers on staff and a fifth as an alternate that has to stay ready. So sharing all those innings -- while I trust [coach Ken Eriksen], and he would have done everything he could to get me as close as possible, I think being able to be immersed in this atmosphere and throw as many innings as I did really allowed me to be able to do that. ...

"Honestly, the way that I felt when we broke [the tour], I was kind of turning the corner, getting there. But I don't know if it was going to get there as fast as I really wanted."

And between handling the weekly draft, setting lineups and coaching first base, she also appeared to enjoy the heck out of the time in Rosemont, Illinois.

"To be honest, I came into this thinking it was just an opportunity to get some game innings," Osterman told players Monday night. "You guys have truly changed my life. At 37, I think most people expected me to come in here and impart knowledge on you guys, and you guys imparted probably way more knowledge than I could give."

Then she shifted from gratitude to motivation.

"I am going to challenge you, though, all of you younger ones," Osterman said on a night that saw eight-year veteran and former NPF offensive player of the year Nerissa Myers announce her retirement. "It's your responsibility to keep playing. ... Continue to play so that people below you have the opportunity to do this and have their lives changed the way we all did."

Athletes Unlimited might give them that opportunity. The league announced Tuesday that it will return to Rosemont for its second season next August. It didn't specify details beyond that, but the timing would indicate a similar length of season.

For winning the league this year, Osterman earned a little more than $35,000 through salary and performance bonuses. Every player earned a base salary of $10,000, with bonuses both throughout the season for winning innings and games and through a sliding scale based on the final leaderboard.

That isn't on par with the NWSL or WNBA in total dollars. But supplemented by playing beyond those six weeks, it moves closer to making full-time softball a feasible path. If the NPF resumes in 2021 after canceling its 2020 season for pandemic-related reasons, many players will play in both leagues. The leagues don't overlap and they have a working relationship, including NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf serving as Athletes Unlimited's senior softball adviser. Or the additional income could come from national teams, overseas leagues or independent teams (runner-up Jessie Warren is among those who also play for the independent USSSA Pride).

It's still a scramble to make ends meet, but it's also an improvement.

And in navigating a season amid a pandemic, operating with clear protocols and just three positive tests in the bubble in Rosemont, the league showed organizational cohesion not always present in post-college softball. Players raved about the experience. It was one they were given an opportunity to shape -- from those who sat in on meetings about the scoring system to those who created a weekly forum for players to discuss the issues beyond softball.

The league will need to keep major national sponsors, which included Nike this season, and national television deals with ESPN and CBS. The NPF has long struggled on both fronts. Athletes Unlimited will also need to convince Olympians to extend their 2021 schedules and play through September.

Olympians and the league needed each other this year. Maintaining the relationship next year will take more work.

For her part, Osterman left the door open Tuesday to defending her title. She said she will definitely retire in 2021. She just isn't sure if that will be in the summer or fall.

But a decade after she and other Olympians walked away from the national team to focus on building a sustainable pro league, that goal only half met as the NPF survived but never thrived, she found reason to believe in the new model.

"I'm very confident in the setup," Osterman said. "This is one of the most professional things I've been a part of. They thought of literally everything, from keeping us safe from COVID to training facilities, just the partners that they had. Everything was absolutely top notch. And they are so committed to continuing to make sure that's the situation with all the sports they bring to the table (Athletes Unlimited professional volleyball, based in Nashville, is expected to start in late February). I really do feel like this is going to be an engaging thing for fans, athletes, and all of us are going to want to see it continue over and over.

"I do think this is the next step for professional softball."

Optimism has been in short supply most everywhere in 2020. Osterman found it in Athletes Unlimited. She wasn't the only one.