She's a record-setting, flamethrowing pitcher. And now she's the first woman in U.S. team sports to sign a $1 million contract.
This is a joke, right?!
That was pitcher Monica Abbott's initial thought after she read a text message from Connie May, the general manager of the Houston Scrap Yard Dawgs of National Pro Fastpitch (NPF), a professional softball league. The message offered Abbott the opportunity to make history. Big money history.
When the 31-year-old Abbott received the text, she was in Japan, where she pitches in the spring and fall. May implied that Abbott — an NPF restricted free agent — could be a pioneer like Nolan Ryan, who became Major League Baseball's first million-dollar player when he signed with the Houston Astros in 1979. (NPF started in 2004 and has six franchises, including the Dawgs, an expansion team in its first season.)
"[There was a part of] the text that said something like, 'Eventually there will be a million-dollar athlete in softball. The question is, will it be you?'" Abbott remembers.
A flurry of reactions and questions followed. (Insert stunned emoji face.)
Are the Dawgs serious?
They were. And for good reason. Abbott is the sport's best pitcher. She has won both the NPF title and pitcher of the year award three times. The lefty also threw the first Olympic perfect game, in 2008. (She recorded two more after that feat — one in NPF and the other in the Japan Softball League, where she's a four-time champion.) In 2012, her 77-mph fastball set a new NPF pitch speed record.
On May 5, after making a formal offer, the Dawgs officially announced that Abbott had agreed to a six-year, $1 million deal. Her base pay is $20,000 each season, which runs June through August. The rest of her salary is bonuses.
The money, however, didn't make it easy to walk away from the Chicago Bandits, the team Abbott led to an NPF title with a 0.31 ERA last year. She also held batters to .106 at the plate in 1121/3 innings and allowed only five earned runs.
"This was one of the toughest decisions of my career. I wasn't thinking about leaving Chicago. I wanted to set up a contract to retire there," Abbott says. "But if I didn't take this contract [with Houston], I would not be standing in my truth. This was bigger than me."
Abbott, now in her ninth NPF season, wants to see female athletes — and women outside of sports — earn more. The average NPF salary for contracted players is between $5,000 and $6,000 per summer. (The average MLB salary is around $4.4 million per season.) She hopes her deal can set an example and open doors for others to follow. "Knowing your value — your worth — it's so important," Abbott says. "I want my contract to create more opportunity and change in women's salaries."
Before the 6'3" flamethrower from Santa Cruz, California, became softball's biggest game-changer, Abbott was actually a subpar player by her own standards.
"I wasn't good," says Abbott, who got her start playing T-ball at age five. "My older sister, Jessica, was the all-star of rec ball. When I was 12, Jessica was pitching and I had to catch for her. I hated it."
Shortly after, a pitching coach recommended that Monica get on the mound too. It was a good suggestion. Abbott went on to play college softball at Tennessee, where she had 23 no-hitters and six perfect games. In 2007, she was drafted by the Washington Glory. Abbott won a title and earned the first of three NPF championship series MVP awards that year. She had short stints with two other NPF teams before pitching in Chicago for five seasons.
Now Abbott aims to make the Dawgs one of the top teams in the league. As of June 27, they were 9-8, with Abbott's record at 5--1. She likes the way the team is jelling.
"There's a lot of good competitive energy on this team," she says. "I'm not only thrilled about my contract, but I'm also thrilled about my teammates and the potential we have."
Photos: Michael J. LeBrecht II