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BILL DWYRE

Olympic softball remains Don Porter's quest

The Games have abandoned a sport at which the U.S., with such stars as Lisa Fernandez, Cat Osterman and Jennie Finch, once shone. The International Softball Federation's Porter seeks its comeback.

June 05, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • U.S. softball player Victoria Galindo walks off the field following the U.S. softball team's loss to Japan in the gold medal game at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Japan's victory proved softball wasn't a sport that was dominated by the Americans.
U.S. softball player Victoria Galindo walks off the field following the… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

The rain drizzled and the air chilled on that dreary night of Aug. 21, 2008, in Beijing.

It was the end of something that had had such a nice beginning. It was a night when sadness was understandable, even while a group of Japanese women deliriously celebrated what they had just achieved.

Through the mist and gloom, Don Porter saw the glass half full, as usual.

In sports significance and popularity, what happened on this Olympian night didn't even make the scale of 1 to 10. This wasn't about a dream team, just a dream. This didn't have them buzzing at the water cooler back home — unless home was in Japan. Nobody was measuring network TV ratings or scrambling to get one of the stars on the "Today" show.

It was women's softball, the Olympic gold-medal game, the U.S. juggernaut versus Japan. It was played at Fengtai, a half-hour taxi ride from the heart of Beijing. The stadium seated 10,000 and it was filled. Bobby Valentine was there. So were more than the usual handful of International Olympic Committee officials. Some were there to support the show, others just to be the show.

In his office under the stands, Porter scurried and worried. It was a grand moment, the fourth gold-medal game over which he had presided as president of the International Softball Federation.

It was also his darkest time, because the fourth would be the last. At least for the foreseeable future.

Starting in 1996 in Atlanta, the Olympics had given Porter's sport a nice blip for two weeks, once every four years. They had created stars, who had created interest and role models for little girls. They had validated the hundreds of meetings and thousands of hours Porter had spent shaking hands, writing letters, doing interviews and hoping for exactly what had eventually happened.

On the field were the stars, watching in shocked disbelief as the Japanese and their pitching hero, Yukiko Ueno, celebrated. The runners-up were the women who had defined the game for the world while Team USA was going 32-5 in Olympic softball and winning the first three gold medals offered — in Atlanta, Sydney and Athens. Their names were Cat Osterman, Jennie Finch, Natasha Watley, Stacey Nuveman, Jessica Mendoza and Crystl Bustos, among others. Watching, undoubtedly, was UCLA's own Lisa Fernandez, who had retired from the gold-medal pursuit after leading her team to three of them. After Athens, the greatest female softball player ever got married and had a baby.

This group had won 22 Olympic games in a row until Ueno beat it that night, 3-1. She had pitched through the losers' bracket and a semifinal before beating the unbeatable. Her workload totaled 28 innings over two days, and nobody was yanking her out because of a pitch count.

Who needs testosterone? This was really true grit.

The drizzle and the mist hung overhead as Porter hovered nearby. IOC officials were presenting medals. Anita DeFrantz of Los Angeles was there. So was Dick Pound of Canada. Both were friends of softball. Also on hand was Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC and not so much a friend. His appearance at softball that night was either ceremonial necessity or chutzpah.

As far back as 2003, Rogge had led a movement to rid the Olympics of baseball and softball. Speculation as to his reasons included that these sports were all too much American and all too little European. Other kinder theories were that he and his backers were simply looking for more variety.

In one of the endless meetings and conclaves that the IOC has, the idea of dropping baseball and softball came to a vote and Rogge was defeated. The sports were retained, at least through Beijing. Rogge then broadened the concept by announcing that all Olympic sports would be reviewed. One can only imagine the fear and anxiety piercing the gymnastics federation.

Through it all, Porter lobbied, shook hands and worked the room at every IOC gathering. He is more politically savvy than confrontational. He disdains rants for logic.

In 2005 in Singapore, the IOC voted again. This time, softball lost, 52-52. Beijing would be its last hurrah. One more vote and Fernandez might be answering to "Coach" now and Bustos would be dreaming about how to crank one of her tape-measure homers off Ueno in London. Instead, as Finch called it the night of the final, softball took "a knife to the heart."

Porter says he never has learned who voted how. The IOC made the vote secret.

"The IOC was 112 members then," he says, "but some left the meeting early, some abstained and some recused themselves."

Softball tried again in Turin, Italy, in 2006 and lost, 47-43. Its next chance is in 2013 at meetings in Buenos Aires, for a return to eligibility in 2020. Porter says he will be there, fighting the good fight.

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