Lack of champion hurts league

Heather Burns

The National Pro Fastpitch playoffs ended without a champion on Sunday because of the weather.

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- What should have been a moment in the proverbial sun for softball was washed away in the rain of the Midwestern summer. National Pro Fastpitch's season ended as an ugly, soggy shambles, fingers raised not skyward to celebrate a championship but instead pointed accusingly in every direction.

It has been quite a year for softball. Sort of like 1929 was quite a year for stockbrokers.

There was no gold medal in softball in London because the sport was turfed out of the Olympics after Beijing four years ago, the victim of the International Olympic Committee politics and an ineffective federation that responded to its loss of exposure by placing its most recent signature event -- the ISF World Championship -- nearer the Arctic Circle than any major newspaper. The United States women's soccer team wasn't the only group playing out a rivalry against Japan this summer, but few people noticed when 2008 Olympic hero Yukiko Ueno outlasted Oklahoma All-American Keilani Ricketts in the gold-medal game in the world championship in Canada's Yukon Territory, three days before Alex Morgan's first goals.

And now there is no champion in the professional league populated by former Olympians and some of the best players of the generation unable to follow in those international footsteps. There is no champion for the NPF's ninth season because, well, it kind of depends on who you ask. All that can be agreed upon is how everyone feels as a result.

"Not having a championship is just kind of pointless for everything that we've worked for this whole entire season and even this whole entire tournament," Bandits outfielder Megan Wiggins said. "It's just kind of like, why? Like what now? Everybody goes home and it means nothing.

"It's just kind of a blow to the face and a blow to everything we've put together here and all the hard work that we've gone through and everything that we've done, the fans, the field crew. I think the priorities up top are just not where they should be because every girl on our side know we want to play and know we were going to wait for however long to play. I think the people in charge, their priorities are elsewhere. That's quite obvious to both sides."

Heather Burns

Bandits players waved to fan from the field after their series against the Pride was canceled because of rain.

The four-team league gathered in Rosemont, adjacent to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, for its postseason tournament. Spread over four days, the format first pitted teams against each other in two best-of-three semifinal series. The USSSA Pride and Chicago Bandits, the top two seeds, advanced to play for the championship for the third year in a row, having split the past two titles. And in a pitching duel that lived up to the hype, Bandits ace Monica Abbott got the best of Pride ace Cat Osterman in the opening game of the championship series on Saturday night.

So far, so good.

The schedule called for the second game of the championship series to be played Sunday afternoon, with the third game to follow that evening, if necessary to break a tie. With either a replay of a championship-clinching second game or a live broadcast of the third game set for ESPN2, the league had the kind of television exposure it craves but has rarely enjoyed in nine seasons. Unfortunately, Chicago weather failed to cooperate, steady rain that began in the morning and let off only briefly in the afternoon forced the second game to be pushed back to the time originally slotted for a third game, with the third game now set to follow immediately after. According to Bandits coach Mike Steuerwald, players and coaches were told Sunday morning to be ready to play deep into the night, if necessary.

The best efforts of the field crew notwithstanding, the field looked a mess as the new start time approached. After just seven pitches and one out, a ground out to third against Abbott by Natasha Watley, the teams were pulled off the field and a delay announced. Within about 30 minutes, another announcement came that the game and series were canceled.

NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf said the forecast for the rest of the night showed the rain would not let up; any break likely to be barely long enough to get the field ready to begin playing again. She also said there was no contingency plan in place, nothing in the bylaws, to govern playing out the remainder of the championship series on Monday. To complicate further, numerous players -- six on the Bandits and several more on the Pride -- had obligations elsewhere beginning Monday. In many cases, including Bandits ace Monica Abbott, those obligations were to Japanese professional teams. Even the biggest stars in NPF are lucky to make $15,000 for the three-month season. For those playing softball as a full-time profession, as opposed to coaching or teaching in the NPF offseason, Japan is the only viable option.

That's enough of a mess in its own right, and Kempf suggested requiring a longer buffer between commitments would be something the league will consider. Where things got even messier was the decision to leave the championship vacant, rather than award it to the Bandits, who were 3-0 in the playoffs and beat the Pride in Game 1, or the Pride, who had two playoff losses but won the regular-season title.

Kempf never said the move was punitive. But every indication was that the Bandits objected to any idea of playing short-handed on Monday, particularly without Abbott, the league's best pitcher.

"I can say that the championship wasn't complete, and it wasn't complete because Chicago stated it had six players that could not finish," Kempf said. "So therefore, I don't feel like that the right thing to do is to award the championship on one game."

What isn't in question is that the Pride were willing to wait out the weather Sunday night or change travel plans to play games Monday. Former Olympian Lauren Lappin is among those heading to Japan.

"I said that I would stay," Lappin said. "I have a flight tomorrow to Japan, but this takes priority over that right now. I want to play and win with my team. I know that everyone on our team was willing to stay and change our plans, whatever they were. We all have different priorities and commitments in the offseason, and obviously the offseason was supposed to start tomorrow, but one day I think is worth it to make some sacrifices elsewhere to make this championship happen."

Among the six Bandits players supposedly unavailable Monday, Wiggins said she, too, could have played before leaving for Japan.

"We did not say we were unwilling to play," Bandits coach Mike Steuerwald said.

Added Bandits owner Bill Sokolis, who had a terse verbal confrontation with Kempf on the field after the cancelation, "We could have put nine players on the field."

The frustrating thing about the final day of the NPF season, and we're talking howl-at-the-moon levels of frustration for anyone who cares about the sport as it exists beyond college, is how it inevitably overshadows the enthralling softball played over the first three days of the tournament. The league put its best foot forward as to why it's a viable sporting entity, and then spent Sunday repeatedly slamming that foot in a door.

It went from being the little league that could, to the little league that couldn't get out of its own way.

You don't need to be a softball geek to revel in the catch Pride center fielder Caitlin Lowe made in the tense middle innings of an elimination game Saturday. Granted, it's the kind of catch the former Arizona All-American and Olympian makes on at least a semi-regular basis, a full-out sprint from center field to snag a sinking line drive a few inches off the grass, followed by a barrel roll to her feet and a perfect throw across the diamond to double off the runner who, like any sane person, assumed the ball would fall. But the athleticism of it, the gasp from the crowd and the reaction of her teammates, those are universal in sports.Anyone who saw it would appreciate it. Unfortunately, almost nobody saw it.

Nor did they see the Akron Racers, the fourth seed after finishing last in the regular season, behave in every possible manner the way so many fans grumble pro athletes and pro teams never behave. Instead of mailing it in after losing the opening game against a Pride team with far more star power, the Racers staged a memorable sixth-inning rally to steal the second game of the semifinal series. Then they jumped out to a 5-0 lead against the Pride in the decisive third game, watched the lead evaporate and reclaimed it again, only to lose when the best hitter on the planet, Jessica Mendoza, hit a home run that only she could hit. And yet even minutes after that loss, all the players wanted to talk about was the pride they had representing the league's longest-standing franchise and how much they loved playing for their coach. Then they went and signed autographs.

Those sights are what brought Chris Watkins and his daughter to the park on Sunday, where they sat in steady rain for close to two hours just to watch the teams take batting practice (and as it turned out, only batting practice). From the Chicago area, they make it to a few games each season, daughter Victoria's annual photo with Bandits ace Monica Abbott a rite of passage and shortstop Tammy Williams a role model for someone playing the same position.

In any other era, Watkins and his daughter could have shared a similar experience watching baseball together, and there wouldn't have been one thing wrong with it. Indeed, Victoria loves the White Sox, too. But it would be nice to think, even if nice thoughts don't make people rich, that there is a place for a league, even a small one with modest ambitions, for her to follow with her dad that features women in the roles of role models.

"Any time it's on, whether it's college softball or any softball on TV, my daughter records it, watches it," Watkins said. "She takes away a lot of stuff. She'll come to me and say, 'You see what she did on this play?' She really takes a lot out of it."

In an autograph line at the end of last regular season, they started talking to a player and told her how much they appreciated her efforts. She thanked them and joked that she just needed to find a job that would let her take the following summer off.

"It's heartbreaking," Watkins said.

Equally maddening is that the closer to the sport you get the harder it is to condemn the protagonists in Sunday's farce. Kempf has about as thankless a job as there is in sports, burdened with all of the pressures that come with the job title of commissioner and little of the power or resources that many of her peers have at their disposal. There should have been a plan in place for something that was more than a remote possibility. There wasn't. What there still is, on the other hand, is a league, one that even hopes to expand.

And as blustery as Sokolis can be, snapping "There isn't a ruling yet; I own the f------ league. There's no ruling yet," when asked about the vacant championship Sunday (he and other owners have an ownership stake in the league). He is also beloved by many of his players and the reason there is still professional softball in Chicago. He's been at it since 2005, and whether or not you believe he's motivated simply by a desire for girls like his daughters to have the same experience he had growing up cheering for the Cubs, he's certainly not in it for the non-existent profits. Nor even whatever glory comes with a championship.

"I don't believe that success in the standings is what brings people to the park," Sokolis said earlier this season. "I think that [it is] the value for the entertainment, I think the one-on-one, the fact that their child can go up and speak or take a picture with a pro player and they're literally talking to them, the treatment they get. Winning is an absolute bonus, of course. To have the best team in your hometown, it's not bad. But we have kids coming here with Pride jerseys on who are from Chicago, and it's because of the players who are on the team.

"I'm great with that; these girls deserve that."

The lack of any contingency plan, the bickering over the availability and willingness of the Bandits to play Monday, the contrasting suspicions that the star-laden Pride were somehow being favored (because every misstep must have motive these days), there is so much the league screwed up on its biggest day, so many arrows to sling. But worst of all, it comes at the expense of everything gained all those other days.

"Every girl that's out here is living her dream every time she gets to step on the field," Racers star Sam Marder said after her team came within a few outs of a place in the final. "I know for us today, we were playing for one more day in the sun. That's what we wanted to play for. None of us know when our last day is going to be; no one knows when their last day is going to be. The NPF provides a number of girls every year to live out their dreams. And it's vital that it keeps going. It's not right to be done with softball when you're 22 years old.

"It's the best summer you had of your life every single summer you get to play."

It's too bad for the league and the sport of softball they didn't get a chance to play out this summer.

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