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TOKYO — This game seemed as good as softball can get: The two best teams in the world, one the inventor of the game and the other the host of the Olympics, going pitch for pitch, nerve for nerve. Then it suddenly got better. Sometimes a sport produces a moment so unpredictable and so unrepeatable that it immediately squeezes all involved parties into a frame on history’s shelf, and here it was.
The U.S. trailed Japan 2–0 in the bottom of the sixth at Yokohama Stadium. There was one out, and two runners on base, which seemed itself like a windfall for Team USA, because Japanese starter Yukiko Ueno had flummoxed the U.S. all night. But now Ueno was out of the game, replaced by Miu Goto, who threw a pitch to Amanda Chidester, and that is when it happened:
Chidester hit a line drive. It hit Japan’s Yu Yamamoto on the left wrist and caromed toward left field … right to Mana Atsumi, who caught it on the fly, then threw out Michelle Moultrie at second base for a double play.
“My first thought,” said U.S. pitcher Cat Osterman, who has been around forever and then some, “I’d never seen that happen.”
It was impossible. It was a softball Helmet Catch, a hole-in-one off a tree. It was a play that both teams will remember for decades as the one that helped Japan beat the U.S., 2–0, for the gold medal.
“If that goes through,” U.S. pitcher Monica Abbott said, “we probably tie the game, maybe even go up—just the amount of, like, momentum we would have on that alone.”
Imagine that play with the stands full of Japanese fans. Imagine two nations hanging on every pitch. Imagine—this is crazy, but hear us out—the IOC actually watching softball with an open mind.
There was more on the line here than the gold medal. Sure, that’s what both teams wanted, and yes, losing had to sting. These U.S. women were never going to be happy just to be on the podium. They’re too good. But they also know that their sport is likely to disappear from the Olympics for a while.
“It’s a shame, isn’t it?” Abbott asked.
Softball players have been through this before. The sport was added to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. By 2004, the IOC was making plans to eliminate it. One reason, it was believed, was that the U.S. was too dominant. That left Team USA in an impossible place: The more it won, the less likely its sport would keep its spot on the Olympic stage. As catcher Stacey Nuveman-Diaz said then: "Human nature is to do the best you can do. If that's not attractive to other countries, shame on the world."
Softball got a reprieve for 2008, and in Beijing, the U.S. did what they never wanted to do: They lost to Japan in the gold medal game. Their sport got eliminated, anyway.
“Obviously we’ve shown that globally it’s a competitive sport,” Osterman said. “There are other sports that aren’t as competitive.“
This year, the IOC brought softball back, but probably just temporarily, because the Japanese love the game. A forward-thinking organization would keep softball around, let it grow, instead of keeping it on the chopping block permanently. But it will be surprising if there are Olympians playing softball in Paris in three years.
It’s a shame. Softball has everything you should want from an Olympic sport, and you just had to watch this game to see it. American Janie Reed had herself a Russian novel of a ball game, smashing a triple, reaching on a dribbler to start that sixth inning near-rally, and leaping over the left field fence to rob Japan of a home run.
There was tremendous athleticism, fast-paced action, bold decision-making from both managers, and two teams full of players who played like it was the most important game of their lives. It was a fantastic sporting event. It should earn a rematch.
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