MLB, USA Softball team up to train for Olympics

WASHINGTON -- Seeing the past two Summer Olympics happen, Cat Osterman says, was “hard to watch” from the sidelines. One of the most accomplished pitchers in the history of professional softball, Osterman played a key role in both the United States’ gold medal victory at the 2004 Athens Games and its silver finish in 2008 in Beijing. But a feeling of helplessness came over her when softball and baseball were removed from the ’12 and ’16 Games, “knowing that opportunity was ripped out of our hands.”

“It was just grueling not knowing if our sport was ever going to be back in,” Osterman said. “And heartbreaking, too, because you had a sport growing in popularity.”

Flash forward to the present day, and baseball and softball are partnering up as they prepare to return to the world stage. Twelve years since their last Olympics appearance, both are back on the docket for this summer’s games in Tokyo, set for July 24-Aug. 9. But first comes the 35-city “Stand Beside Her” tour that will take Team USA across the country from February through June, featuring training and exhibition appearances by members of the U.S. Olympic softball team.

Major League Baseball and USA Softball announced their collaboration Wednesday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting at the Capital Hilton in D.C.

“It’ll gives us a lot of competition in order to be on the top of our game by the time we get to Tokyo,” Osterman said. “The second goal is to send a message to people: Softball is a great sport and it needs to be in the Olympics every time. Also, stand beside all female athletes. Us, the little girl in your family, our country. We’re talking about empowering women, let’s empower women. Let’s start at a young age.”

The tour begins on Feb. 4 with exhibitions in Tampa, Fla., against the University of South Florida and runs through June 25 in Salem, Va., with a game against the Salem All-Stars. After that it’s off to Japan, where both baseball and softball are expected to attract large crowds due to their local popularity. The U.S. softball team qualified by topping the host nation Japan to claim the 2018 world championships in Chiba. Australia, Italy, Mexico and Canada round out the six-team Olympic field, with competition set to begin July 22 at Azuma Stadium in Fukushima.

Said Osterman: “It can be a statement Olympics.”

Softball will not be included in the 2024 Paris Games, meaning the tournament in Tokyo could make or break whether it will be part of the slate for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

“This could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said outfielder Janie Reed, one of the 16 first-time Olympians on Team USA’s roster. Reed, who was part of the four-player panel that came up with the tour’s name, said “Stand Beside Her” was inspired in part by “God Bless America.” Reed also said the inclusion of the female pronoun was important.

“It can mean so many things, which I love,” Reed said. “It’s a long tour and it gives us a lot of opportunity to see what the message means to many people.”

Reed was in middle school when she attended a similar tour event in Fullerton, Calif., prior to the ’08 Games. She still considers the autograph she received from former Team USA outfielder Caitlin Lowe to be a prized possession.

“At the time, I looked up to these girls thinking I would never be in this position. So it’s pretty surreal,” Reed said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing and we’ve all kind of fallen into this in time.”

It’s that kind of influence MLB hopes will result from its partnership with USA Softball and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the latter of which began in 2015 with the shared goal of providing children across America opportunities to play baseball and softball. In the years since, they’ve introduced thousands of kids to baseball and softball through “Play Ball” events and other community initiatives. The program started with the involvement of 125 mayors; now that number stands at more than 300.

“Together, we continue to create opportunities and impact the lives of young people all over the United States and Puerto Rico,” said MLB executive vice president of baseball development Tony Reagins.

Now back on the global stage, baseball and softball both have the chance to expand that reach even further.

“A lot of us were empowered, whether it’s by parents or a coach, at a young age,” Osterman said. “That’s how you begin working on a bigger dream, if someone puts it in your mind that you can. The more we go around and showcase not only our team but show little girls what it is to be a strong, independent woman, it gives them a dream, too.”

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