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BEIJING 2008 : BILL DWYRE

Loss could mean a bigger victory

August 22, 2008|BILL DWYRE

BEIJING — The second-place finish by the U.S. women's softball team had a silver lining.

The greatest team in the short-lived Olympic sport's history, a team that won the first three gold medals contested after softball's inauguration in 1996 in Atlanta and had a cumulative 32-5 record after its 3-1 defeat against Japan on Thursday night in the gold-medal game, actually helped its sport by losing.

An hour or so after it was over, after the victory ceremony in which his team stood on the second step for the first time and sleepwalked through a painful news conference, Coach Mike Candrea said what everybody was thinking.

"If this is what it takes to bring it back," Candrea said, "then so be it."

Olympic softball's last moment on the planet, at least as things stand now, ended with Caitlin Lowe's ground ball being scooped up and tossed to first base, one hop into the glove of Japan's Rie Sato.

Game, set, match. Olympic sport no more.

Ironically, it had been played to a full house of 10,000, had filled the section where the International Olympic Committee members and other influential VIPs sit, had produced a track-and-field-like scrum of media in the mixed zone and had a standing-room-only gathering at the news conference.

"Nice to see the room full," Candrea said, looking out at the sardine-packed writers.

Beginnings and endings always attract reporters, and this game was targeted for a sizable gathering as soon as the IOC voted softball and baseball out of the Olympics, effective in 2012 in London. That vote was in July 2005.

There are several reasons softball didn't stick on the Olympic agenda, including the fact that it is played very little in Europe and the IOC is a very European club.

Don Porter, as hard-working a federation president as you'll find, knew his sport was in trouble in Athens and has been fighting to get it back in play ever since.

He has written letters, made speeches, lobbied IOC members, even created a Back Softball Task Force, with two-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer Donna de Varona as its main spokeswoman. Sitting with Porter and helping present the medals Thursday night were IOC members Anita DeFrantz of the U.S., Dick Pound of Canada and Nicole Hoevertsz of Aruba. Preaching to the choir there, although IOC President Jacques Rogge showed up for a game Wednesday.

But perhaps the biggest detriment to the sport was the overwhelming success of its most successful member, Team USA.

Every Olympics, until this one, ended up the same. U.S. players pitched best, ran fastest, hit farthest and played the best defense. There were plenty of dramatic games, but the end result was always the same: gold medal for Team USA. That made it hard to sell to a bunch of guys who actually understand team handball and talk about Greco-Roman wrestling at their cocktail parties.

Even with softball adding another female sport to the Games, it wasn't enough, and the IOC is likely to compensate for softball with the inclusion of women's boxing.

They also dropped baseball, but that apparently was more in reaction to Major League Baseball's refusal to stop its season for a couple of weeks in August every four years and send the IOC another version of basketball's Dream Team.

With softball, it was easy to point to U.S. domination and reject holding a sport for the ego gratification of just one country. Hard to argue, until Thursday night.

This time, the star pitcher wasn't Lisa Fernandez or Jennie Finch or Cat Osterman. It was Japan's Yukiko Ueno, who pitched 21 innings Wednesday to get her team back through the loser's bracket and then pitched seven more to beat the U.S.

And while the tournament's big hitter was, again, Crystl Bustos -- with six home runs, including one Thursday night -- Japan matched that with Eri Yamada, who had two hits and a home run of her own.

"We've been telling you guys there is parity, but nobody would listen," Candrea said. "Not parity of 16 teams, but four or five now."

The first chance the IOC will have to reverse itself is at a meeting in October 2009. Between now and then, Porter, a bulldog with a bit in his mouth, will keep pushing for reversal.

But his best argument was made Thursday night, on a misty night in a softball stadium filled with people who liked what they saw, and probably would like to see it again.

USA Softball lost, giving its sport a chance to win.

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Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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SOFTBALL

*--* Medal winners G: Japan S: United States B: Australia *--*

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