What happened 13 years ago was heartbreaking for Softballers around the world. The sport was taken off the biggest international stage, with Beijing 2008 being the last Olympics it would be part of. For many of us, our dream was ripped away, the dream to play top-level softball on the biggest stage in the world with the best players. But 13 years passed and thankfully softball persevered. It gained traction with a following that couldn’t be ignored in a day and age of internet, social media, and streaming. ESPN’s Women’s College World Series over the past 5 years proved this following of softballers deserved to be heard, with audience numbers increasing every year. The 2021 WCWS alone averaged 1,840,000 viewers for the championship series, up 15 percent breaking records since the 2019 series. Softballers started a rally, and our call was finally answered with the sport’s reinstatement into the Olympics for Tokyo 2020. The Olympic dream was alive again and the world was ready for it.

17 Olympic Softball games took place, 14 televised for Kiwis thanks to Sky Sport. The games did not disappoint in showing off clutch defense, power pitching, home runs, and game changing plays. Kiwis were buzzing over social media about what they saw- the good, the bad, and the controversial. But what was the biggest takeaways to come out of watching Olympic Softball?

Premier player and The Dugout’s own Maddison Gerbes, an up and coming athlete currently playing for Otahuhu was excited to check out the sport’s top players on the big screen. Like many Kiwi softballers, she comes from a family involved in the sport. “Watching world-class athletes… those who are and have been in their prime for years are amazing and showcases the beauty of our sport.” White Sox Head Coach and former Black Sox player Roman Gabriel, who is no stranger to the international stage, couldn’t help but notice the change in atmosphere of the games due to Covid 19. “Playing with no crowd didn’t help the players really feel the tension of moments as much or give them the ability to express themselves and ride the crowd’s vibe.” Although it was great we still had close games, many on social media agreed and wondered why some Olympic sports had small crowds while others didn’t.

The Dugout’s Brad Rona, another Black Sox great, wished softball was given the standalone credit it deserved instead of being combined with baseball. “It was good to see softball back at the Olympics but not played on a baseball field… or on turf. The top players should have been able to play on dirt diamonds.” Brad wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Social media forums were full of supporters disliking the softball field format, which was purposely created and combined with baseball to make it easier for both sports to be reinstated into the Olympics.

But what was the biggest buzz that had not only Kiwis but supporters everywhere screaming behind their keyboards? Believe it or not, it was age and the experience of players on the Olympic Softball rosters. Fastpitch forums were full of disagreement with the USA team’s roster, claiming the best players weren’t taken and that those who were picked were too old to be on the USA National Team. They used examples of players currently in the college system at the top schools, saying their pitching and hitters would beat the current USA Team any day. A big debate arose between age and experience of the international player. What is the difference? Is there a difference? Did the USA Softball powerhouse make a mistake in their national lineup? To figure that out, you need to know one thing about softball… it’s a numbers game and the numbers don’t lie.

The top pitchers that dominated in the Olympics were all in their late 30’s. Japan’s pitcher Yukiko Ueno (age 39) won Gold in the previous 2008 Olympics, and was back with the Japanese National Team as their ace reclaiming her team’s spot on the podium 13 years later! In the Gold medal game, she held Team USA to just two hits while striking out five, and no runs scored. Team USA had the combination of Cat Osterman (age 38) and Monica Abbott (age 36), both lefty throwers but with completely different styles. Osterman is a movement pitcher who changes speeds and spins while Abbot is known for her power pitching and has been clocked at over 70MPH (112 KPH). They both had 0.0 ERA’s and like Ueno, experience in the previous 2008 Olympics.

The pitcher is the specialist position you need to play the sport, and it’s tough when you don’t have a decent one. Looking at both Japan and the USA, their age didn’t matter. You can’t get any better than a 0.0 ERA, so why all the fuss about age? They did their job, they did their countries proud. This is the pinnacle of International Softball, shouldn’t playing ability trump age? Let’s also note that in team USA’s build-up, they played the top college teams and beat them. They proved they were the top pitchers and deserved to be on that team, for their second Olympic debut 13 years later. Now for the argument seen online- if the pitching was so good, why didn’t the USA win? They both had a better ERA than Japan’s ace Ueno. Again, numbers don’t lie. You need to score to win games, and USA’s offense didn’t help as they went down in the Gold Medal game 2-0. In fact, throughout the Olympic tour, their bats weren’t firing compared to Japan. Throughout round-robin play, USA had scored just nine runs on 27 hits with just one home run. Japan, meanwhile, scored 18 runs on 26 hits with six home runs. Some say defense wins championships, but you need an offense to win games.

Former White Sox Coach and player, Naomi Shaw, wasn’t surprised with the outcome of the games as she has known the Japanese Head Coach, Reika Utsugi for several years and believes their work ethic is something Kiwis need to take on board. “The Japanese team was so dominant at the Olympics…Many of the Japanese players are of small stature but have proven sublime skills honed over many hours of training can be the difference between world dominance in the sport. They were error free throughout the whole tournament and dominant with their hitting, especially under pressure. Their pitcher Yukiko Ueno is undoubtedly one of the greatest female pitchers ever…they analysed every strength and weakness of their opposition and it showed with the outcome.”

With the sport likely not to return until the 2028 Olympics in the USA, many teams will be taking this time to rebuild for the future and learn from the past. Until then, Kiwis can learn from the best teams in the world. But that isn’t the USA anymore, it’s Japan. The USA has the playing numbers, but Japan has the work ethic. Softball is great because it is a sport that you can play at any age, and as you can see on top-level teams both in New Zealand and around the world, age doesn’t matter if you are the best. Take a page out of Japan’s book. If you want to be great at the sport, hone in on your skills and fundamentals so defensive errors are minimal and you are prepared for any play. Be confident in your mental game and analyze your opposition so it doesn’t matter what pitcher or team you face. Perfect your hitting mechanics so you can be successful hitting any pitch. And finally, don’t let anybody stop you. People will always try to bring you down. Whatever their reasoning, whether it be age, height, pitching speed, it doesn’t matter. Work hard and let your playing ability speak for itself. 

Written by the Dugout team

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