Cat Osterman was back in Austin, hanging out with friends on the Texas baseball team during a lull in training for the U.S. softball team, when the news scrolled across the bottom of the TV screen that July day in 2005.
She didn’t see it, her attention elsewhere, so it fell to one of her friends to tell her.
“Looks like your career is going to end sooner than you thought it was,” he said, breaking the news that the International Olympic Committee had voted by secret ballot to drop baseball and softball after the 2008 Beijing Games.
“The shocking part was no one knew that was coming; everybody was blindsided,” recalls Osterman, then the Longhorns’ 22-year-old left-handed ace and a member of the U.S. softball team that won gold at the 2004 Athens Games.
Now 38, Osterman has come out of retirement to be part of softball’s return at the Tokyo Olympics.
Though physical recovery takes longer these days, Osterman says she’s confident that experience will compensate for anything time has stolen when the U.S. opens play against Italy on Tuesday, with a legacy to reclaim. Two days later, Team USA will face Japan in a rematch of the 2008 gold-medal game — a 3-1 loss that relegated the Americans to silver for the first time since softball was added to the Olympics at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
“I don’t wake every day being motivated to get a gold medal back from Japan; I am motivated to help this group of athletes get on a podium,” said Osterman, who pitched the first five innings of that defeat. “But I’d be lying if I said that, when we’re competing against Japan, that the fire won’t get lit.”
Softball’s return to the Games, alongside baseball’s, is a feel-good narrative in the run-up to a spectator-free Olympics that may be short on joy. But no one is taking a victory lap just yet. Neither sport has been fully reinstated. Instead, each Olympic host nation will decide whether to include them.
Japan, softball’s defending gold-medalist and a nation with a passion for both sports, wanted them in the Tokyo Games. The 2024 Paris Olympics aren’t expected to include them, but supporters hope the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics will.
That tenuous status heightens the stakes for softball’s return at the Tokyo Games, where six nations (pared back from eight in prior Olympics) will vie for medals. It is one more opportunity for softball to demonstrate its value on a global stage.
“The work starts as soon as these Games start,” said Osterman, one of two holdovers from the 2008 Olympic team, along with fellow pitcher Monica Abbott. “We’ve got to get L.A. to see us as a viable option and keep us and baseball on the docket. After that, Brisbane (expected to host the 2032 Games) could be a chance where it’s back-to-back Olympics. We can use these Olympics to showcase how great our sport is.”
While U.S. hegemony has long been established, softball has a strong following in Asia and a growing one in Central America. It is far less popular in Europe, which is a focus of efforts to extend its reach.
Inclusion in the Olympics is critical to softball’s future as a global sport, in the view of veteran coach Mike Candrea, who built a dynasty at Arizona and coached Team USA to softball gold at the 2004 Athens Games and silver in Beijing in 2008. The sport got a boost from its Olympic debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games, he said.
“Now kids had a dream that they could be an Olympian,” Candrea said. “Numbers started growing in the U.S., and it was a shot of adrenaline to softball around the world, with countries starting to put money into growing the sport at the grass-roots level.”
College softball’s popularity has never been greater: TV ratings for the recent Women’s College World Series set records, averaging 1.2 million viewers on ESPN, up 10% over the 2019 WCWS. But without the Olympics as a goal, top players have few incentives to extend their careers after college.
“It’s the biggest stage for our sport,” said two-time Olympian Natasha Watley, 39, among the rare position players (shortstop) to compete professionally overseas, playing eight seasons and now coaching in Japan. “Having that platform gives us the validation internationally. Here in the States, we don’t have a thriving pro league, so that is something we shoot for — to be among the 18 on that team to represent our country at the Olympics. That’s literally all we have.”
The IOC never explained the reasons behind its 2005 secret vote.
In a 2008 interview with Time, Dick Pound, IOC member and former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said that softball was “caught up in the shotgun blast against baseball” — collateral damage, in effect, of an IOC pushback against baseball for its steroids scandal and refusal to send its top players.
Others theorized that IOC voters viewed softball and baseball as little more than showcases for American dominance. Candrea believes that several votes were cast by IOC delegates who thought they were simply voting out baseball, rather than baseball and softball combined.
To Watley, it was heartbreaking regardless — a shock she likens to breaking up with a boyfriend. “This is it? No explanation? No, ‘What can I do to be better? What can we do to be better?’ ”
For pitcher Jennie Finch, who led Team USA to gold in 2004 and silver in 2008, not being given an explanation was maddening.
“Give us an action plan! Tell us the ‘why,’ ” Finch recalls thinking. “But there really wasn’t any ‘why’ behind it. So many people before our generation had worked so hard to get softball to where it was, and we reaped the benefits of that and were continuing that movement forward. It was like we were taking 20 steps backward.”
Born to a family of Dodger fans, Finch has loved sports since she can remember. At 4, she watched gymnast Mary Lou Retton triumph at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. She cheered Jackie Joyner-Kersee through four Olympics. Her parents clipped out every newspaper article they could find about female athletes, and she devoured them all, without regard to their sport. As a young softball player, she hoped to become a female Orel Hershiser — if only baseball would open a door for her.
But Finch came of age as Title IX’s impact took hold, expanding opportunities for female athletes, and she flourished as an all-American at Arizona, leading the Wildcats to the Women’s College World Series title in 2001. She also added the Olympics to her goals.
At roughly the same time, Osterman, reared in Texas, was raising her ambitions after getting a chance to play against the U.S. National team at 18.
“OK, that’s a new goal for me!” Osterman recalls thinking. “Any time you have an Olympic dream, that gives girls an opportunity to dream of something bigger — not just get to play in college and then decide, ‘I’m done.’ ”
After the 2004 Athens Olympics, “This Week in Baseball” signed Finch as a co-host and launched a segment in which she pitched against — and often embarrassed — Major League hitters. The segment created a huge buzz.
The IOC’s decision came less than a year later.
In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, the U.S. softball team tried to set aside the fact that it would be the sport’s final Olympics and focus on what they could control as players.
It wasn’t easy.
Watley, 39, a UCLA all-American who describes herself as a “generally positive person,” said she felt the specter of the final Games had a negative effect. “I feel like we just carried more pressure — ‘We have to win!’ I just think it carried more weight.”
For Osterman, reality set in immediately afterward.
“I don’t think we carried it with it us as we played,” Osterman said. “But the fact is, the end result is what we had to live with. There was no thinking, ‘In four years . . . so let’s get after it!’ There was a finality to it, which is what stung in winning the silver medal. There wasn’t going to be an opportunity for redemption, so to speak.”
In June, as the Tokyo-bound squad wrapped up its final U.S. exhibition series, Osterman downplayed the “unfinished business” narrative.
It couldn’t serve as a rallying cry, she noted, if only two members of the 2021 team were part of the 2008 silver-medal effort.
Moreover, Osterman saw a greater agenda ahead: to show, through their performance in Tokyo, that softball belongs in the Olympics — to wage again a battle they thought had already been won.