Pro softball vets put 'real' life on hold
ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Minutes after her Chicago Bandits lost to the USSSA Pride in the National Pro Fastpitch championship last August, Amber Patton struggled to find the words to answer a question about her future.
Her voice cracked, then trailed off, and she visibly fought back tears. Not about the championship just lost but about what came next.
Chicago's third baseman admitted she didn't know whether she would return for a sixth season.
"I just really, really hope that this league takes off and people aren't faced with this decision," Patton continued after a pause. "It's tough. I mean, you've got to make a living."
Therein rests the core conundrum of professional softball.
Nine months later, Patton's presence on the top step of the home team's dugout in the Ballpark at Rosemont made clear her decision. She had returned for at least one more summer -- despite being unable to play that day in a regular-season game against the Akron Racers because of an ankle injury suffered days earlier when she over-slid a base.
The Ballpark at Rosemont, an impressive softball-only facility that is home to the NPF's Bandits and NAIA Roosevelt University, sits in the shadows of O'Hare International Airport. But after the Racers closed out a two-game visit with a win against the Bandits, and after she had finished signing for autographs, Akron third baseman Kelley Montalvo prepared to board not a flight, but a bus for a six-hour drive home to Ohio.
The Bandits would follow the same roads a little more than a day later for two games in Akron.
The proximity of one of the world's busiest airports did not change the reality that pro softball is a world of long bus rides and short turnarounds, small budgets and big dreams.
And little longevity.
"It's always hard because at the end of the season we say the same thing: This is my last year," said the 26-year-old Montalvo, now in her fifth season. "And you can't. You can't put up the cleats just yet because either your body's not ready, your heart's not ready or your passion isn't ready. For me personally, I know that I've been in this since I was 5 years old, and when I'm ready to retire the cleats, I'll just feel it. And I haven't felt it just yet."
Now in the opening weeks of its 11th season, the four-team NPF offers the best softball played anywhere in the world. Not every former college star chooses to play in it, some choosing instead to try out for the national team and others moving on from the game altogether, but the NPF offers an opportunity to continue playing against a greater concentration of talent than can be found in any other setting. It's where softball dream scenarios come to life: Cat Osterman against Dallas Escobedo, Monica Abbott against Keilani Ricketts, and Megan Wiggins against anyone who dares pitch to her.
What the league cannot yet offer for players like Montalvo or Patton is an easy way to keep playing.
Only 15 players on NPF rosters have at least five seasons of experience in the league. Seven of those players spent varying but significant amounts of time with the United States national team, before the sport was dropped from the Olympic program and the national program lost much of its funding after the 2008 Olympics and 2010 ISF World Championship. The other veterans, including Montalvo and Patton, are almost entirely products of the pro league. They represent what the league wants to be. Their scarcity represents the difficulty in doing so.
To spend three months each summer playing in a league in which rosters of around 20 players are squeezed under a salary cap of $150,000 per team, players must find ways to sustain themselves professionally and financially the other nine months of the year. That can be feasible the first summer or two out of college. It grows increasingly difficult each year beyond that.
Just as professional baseball was a century or more ago, professional softball is seasonal work.
Many players spend the other nine months coaching in college. It's a convenient schedule fit, especially for a graduate assistant or a position with limited responsibilities, but it's only a temporary fix. Coaches like Middle Tennessee State's Jeff Breeden, Montalvo's boss when she's not playing for Akron, are as much the exception as the rule. Summer is important recruiting time and many college head coaches don't want full-time assistants who have only part-time availability in those months (the trade-off is the obvious recruiting appeal of a still-active professional player).
Rarer still is the juggling act Patton pulls off. An assistant coach at Northern Illinois University during her second season in NPF, she soon ran into the same commitment conundrum and chose playing instead of coaching. She is now one of the few players spending the offseason in an office, at the same kind of 9-to-5 job as so many of her non-softball peers gaining a foothold in the working world. She is a sales associate for Total Control Sports, a sporting goods company based in the Chicago area that markets softball and baseball hitting aids nationwide. The cold calls aren't all that fun, she concedes, but for someone who always had a business bent in her time at DePaul, she enjoys managing the accounts and making sure clients are happy.
Each summer she takes a leave of absence and trades the office for the diamond. It is not an ideal arrangement for Patton, for the co-worker who covers her accounts or for her boss. It grows less ideal each year. But she again swayed her boss this past offseason with a simple appeal.
"I can work, literally, for the rest of my life, and I only have this small window to play competitive softball the way that we're playing," Patton said. "To be one of the 80-some girls in the league, I'm beyond fortunate to be able to step on the field with those girls. That's kind of my mentality. I want to be done on my terms. I don't want to sound bad in saying that, but it's really important to me. I don't want someone else to decide when my career is going to be done."
Each summer the NPF springs back to life with a cast that bears only a passing resemblance to the season that preceded it. In the game between the Bandits and Racers -- albeit a game that took place before the familiar faces of Abbott and Wiggins returned to the Bandits from professional stints in Japan -- the starting lineups included 11 rookies. For teams like the Bandits, players like Patton and fourth-year shortstop Tammy Williams are gold. Key components of the team's 2011 championship, they have roster spots as long as they want them.
Or more accurately, as long as they can hold off the rest of their lives.
"They're pretty much, I think, on that list of if they want to and can continue to play, they're going to play," Bandits general manager Aaron Moore said. "A lot of other times, it's kind of based on how real life gets in the way. And it makes it interesting."
Patton didn't grow up with a dream of playing professional softball. She didn't wait by a phone to find out if she had been drafted. She found out after the fact, the news an afterthought from a league she knew almost nothing about. More important at the time was the status of potential internships with Under Armour and 3M. Neither came to fruition, so she took a chance on softball. And kept playing. She marveled at how much more the veterans knew when she arrived in 2009, how much better they understood the game. Now she's one of those veterans, and she's still learning.
"Looking back on it, softball has given me so much," Patton said. "There are so many places I've traveled that I never would have ever traveled to. I've met amazing people I never would have met if I didn't play softball. And at some point, you're thankful for what it's given you and hopefully you can give the same back.
"Everyone is done at some point in time. It's going to come to an end at some point."
That point hasn't come for Patton or Montalvo, but it came for Jami Lobpries after the 2012 season. The former Texas A&M standout played four seasons in NPF, never for the same team in back-to-back seasons -- not because a defensive standout with a good on-base percentage wasn't productive, but because the franchises she played for kept folding, relocating or rebranding. She had three knee surgeries in those four seasons on her right knee, part of six total procedures on that knee during her athletic career. Yet more than any disillusionment with her lot, and at least as much as the physical toll on her body, it was the work required for a doctorate in sport management that finally made her pull the plug.
"The passion never leaves you," said Lobpries, who will begin teaching at the University of Tampa this fall. "I just kind of had to be realistic with where I was at in my life."
That they operate on a budget notwithstanding, the Bandits run a professional shop. Food is provided, uniforms laundered. Patton, Williams and others who stay in the area are able to train free of charge through the long winter. Lobpries had a harsher go of it, playing for the league's ever-turbulent fourth franchise for most of her career. She spent one season entirely on the road and another in what proved a slapdash attempt to find a home in North Carolina. She had every reason to leave jaded (and still does as she endures continued wrangling with insurance companies about her injuries).
Yet jaded hardly describes someone who credits her time in the league as the reason she chose to pursue the doctorate in the first place. Three times she had ample reason to walk away. Three times she came back.
"Going into my last year, I knew it was going to be it, simply for where I was at in my career outside of softball," Lobpries said. "But I saw something in the NPF that I wanted to be a part of, something bigger, something I wanted to help grow. So that's always been in the back of my mind when I made decisions."
That seems to be a theme for those who stick around.
Part of the motivation to keep playing is the selfishness required of all athletes, that desire to keep improving and to feed the addictive qualities of competition. But the players who make it work for more than a season or two almost universally talk about wanting to build something. They want professional softball to become a viable option, not in the same financial terms as baseball, but to a point where it meets the minimum requirements of a full-time job that someone could hold for six or eight or more years after college. That won't ever be their reality because the league is still trying to prove that the fans who support college softball in increasingly large numbers will follow those players to the next level. The league hasn't done that yet. The players believe they can.
For now, that means there is still a bargain to be struck by those who play.
"I think about that every single day," Montalvo said. "Every single day I think about, you know, I want to go on vacation in the summer. Man, I would love to take a cruise. I still haven't gotten that chance. But I choose to play because I love it so much, and I know I'll get those opportunities later on."
So another summer of softball begins for the Bandits, Racers, Pride and Pennsylvania Rebellion, the league's newest team and its best hope in a while for a stable fourth franchise. And for a handful of players, the very fact that they are still here is proof that there's no place they would rather be.
"I don't feel I'm putting my life on hold at all," Patton said. "I feel right now I'm living it to the fullest."