Mourning the loss of softball as an Olympic sport

LONDON – It was a cool evening. The setting sun found a tiny hole in the clouds. The occasional sprinkle fell on Regent’s Park, and tall grasses that looked as if they belonged on a Midwest prairie began to sway.

Then you looked at the grass, looked through the mind’s eye, and you saw it move even more as the women pushed through it. There were Tanya Harding and Crystl Bustos, Lisa Fernandez and Yukiko Ueno, Stacey Porter and Laura Berg and all the other great softball players whose sport was banished from the Olympics.

This would have been their field of dreams, where London Olympic organizers planned to put the tournament that would have been reaching its final stages Monday night. Maybe Ueno would be starting a streak of pitching 28 innings in two days, as she had to give Japan a surprise victory over the United States in the 2008 Olympics.

This was where men and women from J.P. Morgan played Bloomberg LP in a City Bankers Softball League game Monday night. The Bank of Montreal had at Barclay’s on another of the 15 pieces of the Regent’s Park greensward used for softball. None has a backstop. All are soccer fields most of the year.

Slow-pitch softball. Mixed softball. Social softball

“Oh, wow,” Jessica Mendoza said. “A bankers league. Was that kind of like softball in the Olympics?”

We were talking by telephone. Mendoza was at her home in Florida. The two-time Olympian, winner of gold and silver medals, should have been at magnificent Regent’s Park, where she and U.S. coach Mike Candrea had done a clinic after the 2008 Olympics, a clinic so popular people had to be turned away.

“I remember how beautiful the location was,” Mendoza said. “And the promise of what softball could be in Great Britain. I would do anything to be there.”

It was a promise broken when the International Olympic Committee voted softball off the program two days after awarding the 2012 Games to London in July 2005. The scandal wasn’t throwing games. It was an IOC made up of 85% men throwing out a women’s sport now played competitively in 127 countries. How many play modern pentathlon or do canoe-kayak or track cycling?

A simple majority was needed for softball to retain the place it first earned for the 1996 Olympics and kept through 2008. The vote ended in a tie, with one abstention, an abstention that proved a rare display of ethical rectitude by an IOC member faced with a conflict of interest. It came from U.S. member Jim Easton, whose company makes and sells much of the softball equipment used worldwide.

Softball fell by a wayside of discontinued Olympic sports that include croquet and tug of war.

Jenny Fromer was watching the bankers league games Monday night. She was born in Britain and went to Coe College in Iowa but began playing slow-pitch softball here in 1992. Her father, Bob, the general manager of Great Britain’s national team, is considered the founder of softball in the country. She is co-chief executive of Baseball Softball UK.

She hasn’t watched much of the 2012 Olympics.

“I’m struggling with the Olympics, and I’m struggling with acting like the one person in London who doesn’t care it’s going on,” Fromer said.

“I don’t think I have moved past the heartbreak of being voted out. I can’t get past that we are not there. It would have been a game changer for the sport in our country.”

The British softball team finished 11th in a global event last month. It was a world championship in Whitehorse, Yukon, population 23,000.

Eight of the 16 teams in the worlds had Olympians, 37 in all. The U.S. did not. Six 2008 Olympians are playing with Mendoza on the USSSA Pride in the four-team National Pro Fastpitch league.

Japan won the world title over the United States. It was an upset, just like Japan’s victory in the last Olympics. That outcome was supposed to end objections that there was no reason to have softball in the Olympics after the way the United States had dominated the first three tournaments.

When the 2008 Olympic final ended, the players used softballs to spell “2016" on the field. That was part of a failed effort to get the sport back for the upcoming Olympics. In 2008, the IOC gave softball and baseball a more resounding rejection and added golf and rugby for 2016. Rugby is a favored sport of IOC President Jacques Rogge of Belgium.

Don Porter, the indomitable octogenarian who runs the International Softball Federation, was in London for several days before these Olympics began, refighting a battle he thought won for good after 29 years of previous effort. The goal now is the 2020 Olympics. The chances aren’t good.

“The most difficult part of this has been reading emails from hundreds of young female softball players worldwide saying that their Olympic dreams have been taken,” Porter said.

An artistic interpretation of one of London’s mascots, “Animal Wenlock,” was placed on a pedestal next to the where the bankers league teams played. It mocked the dreams those fields might have inspired.