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BILL DWYRE

Softball's torchbearers hope their Olympic flame can be reignited

Though softball won't be played in the London Olympics or in 2016, the sport's biggest boosters haven't given up on 2020.

July 27, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • United States softball team celebrates after defeating Australia in the gold medal game at the 2004 Olympic Games.
United States softball team celebrates after defeating Australia in the… (Al Behrman / Associated…)

LONDON — It was early Friday night here, and neither Don Porter nor Jessica Mendoza was in a good place.

Limos were gathering the VIPs from the VIP hotels along Park Lane. Soon, the opening ceremony of the London Olympics would begin. They were to be, as all Olympic openings have become, an artistic springboard to an athletic extravaganza.

Porter sat in an empty lounge alcove of the Grosvenor House Hotel and watched the hustle and bustle of departing dignitaries. He attended his first Games in 1968 in Mexico City, and with the exception of the U.S.-boycotted Moscow Games and the Munich Games in 1972, he had been to every Olympic Summer opener since 1976 in Montreal. He would not go this time.

Mendoza was in Orlando, Fla., one very big ocean separating her from her desired destination.

They talked by phone, commiserated a bit and had the company of each other's ongoing bewilderment over what had happened to their Olympic dreams.

Porter is the president of the International Softball Federation. After many years of trying — "29 years, 6 months and 13 days," he says — his sport made it to the Olympics. It made its debut at the Atlanta Games in 1996, played before sellouts there and seemed as if, with its wholesome competitive nature and its showcasing of female athletes, it was perfect for an event that preached the need for exactly that.

"I remember going to one of our games in Atlanta," Porter says, "seeing big crowds heading in and a guy scalping tickets. I stopped the car to be sure. At that moment, I thought we had made it."

NBC even got enough complaints about lack of air time for softball in Atlanta that Dick Ebersol sent Porter a hand-written note afterward. It said, "It won't happen again." Porter says he still has the note.

Things went well through Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, and the sport was contested in '08 in Beijing. But before that, the International Olympic Committee had voted it out, starting in London.

Mendoza was a star outfielder on the Athens and Beijing teams. She is 31, a Stanford grad, is married with a two-year-old son, works as a commentator for ESPN and is still playing softball in a pro league.

"I would have been there now," Mendoza says. "Today hit a lot of us. There have been lots of tweets and texts. We are all feeling like we felt the day they dropped softball."

That day, Mendoza says she had just hit two home runs in a game and was feeling pretty good.

"There were sportswriters waiting for me," she recalls. "I was ready to talk about my game. Then one asked me how I felt about softball being eliminated from the Olympics. It was like a punch in the stomach. I lost my breath."

The politics of the Olympics could have either killed Porter or made him stronger. The 81-year-old former NFL referee hopes for the latter. Since his sport lost its Olympic status, he has carried on the campaign. Feeling like an outcast, he came here, nevertheless, to keep pushing his message to the IOC.

"I'm working it as hard as I can," he says, "but it gets tough. They don't like to see you coming."

Porter has been told his only path back is a joint venture with baseball, which also was tossed from the Games. He is in the process of joining the softball federation with the baseball federation, and doing so somewhat under protest.

"This is not our preference," he says, "but if it is the best and only way to get back into the Olympics, we'll do it.

Baseball is the entree because the IOC likes its corporate connections and says it wants "the best athletes in the world." There will likely be no compromise for minor leaguers, such as Tommy Lasorda's team that won in Sydney. The major leagues in Japan, Taiwan and Korea have signed on, so the IOC is looking for MLB's big boys too. But getting Bud Selig and his owners to stop their season in August every four years so Albert Pujols and Matt Kemp can play in games against Belgium and Sri Lanka is not a likelihood.

Porter labors on, practicing detente with a room full of people, half of whom think baseball and softball are the same thing because they both have bats and balls, and the half who covet new money from MLB sponsors.

In a night when she is a world away, Mendoza remembers the Beijing opening ceremony as giving her an "unbelievable rush." She remembers not wanting to leave when it ended. But her biggest rush was at her saddest moment, just minutes after she and her U.S. teammates had lost the gold-medal game, for the first time ever, to Japan.

Before the game, knowing this would be a softball finale, she conspired with players from other teams, mostly Australia, to get a bunch of yellow softballs after the medals ceremony and spell out, on the field, a giant "2016." That was the year they hoped the IOC would let them return.

When her U.S. team lost, she hated the idea. "But I stopped sulking, got over myself, and went ahead," she says.

The Australian team, there as spectators, drew the numbers on the field and soon, after language barriers were overcome, Chinese, Japanese, Australians and U.S. players were constructing their message to the IOC.

They posed for a picture, and Medoza says she ended up holding hands with the Japanese pitcher who had just beaten them.

"I never thought I could sink so low," she says, "and rise up so quickly again."

The next chance for Porter and Mendoza to feel good about an opening ceremony is whenever and wherever they hold the 2020 Olympics. Sadly, even that will take a late-inning, 10-run rally.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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