No longer a field of dreams

Brian Miller
Posted 7/26/12

On two occasions Mike Candrea has coached the United States women’s softball team to a medal in the Olympics, and both times he did so with a heavy …

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No longer a field of dreams

On two occasions Mike Candrea has coached the United States women’s softball team to a medal in the Olympics, and both times he did so with a heavy heart — for very different reasons.
In 2004, the U.S. women dominated the field in Athens, outscoring opponents 51-1 on its way to its third gold medal in the sport. Candrea, in his first Olympic showing, led the team to victory despite having recently dealt with the death of his wife of 28 years.
In 2008 Candrea was back with the U.S. at the Summer Games in Beijing. This time Japan walked away with a 3-1 victory and the Americans took home silver, but it was bittersweet for all involved knowing that the sport wouldn’t be back in the Olympics in 2012.
As the Summer Games get underway this weekend in London, it does so without softball and baseball. Both sports were voted out of the Olympics by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) back in 2005, and won’t have the chance to return until at least 2020.
“It was pretty devastating. We felt like at that stage of the game, softball had grown considerably around the world,” Candrea said recently by phone. “It was just kind of sad that it was really a political battle and a battle that there’s not much we could have done other than what we did.”
Softball still a big hit
Candrea is the longtime softball coach at the University of Arizona, where the Wildcats have won eight NCAA Division I national titles. He said that softball did all it could to prove it belonged on the world-wide stage.
“We brought the best players to the Olympic games. We never had a positive drug test throughout the entire time softball was involved,” Candrea said. “I think we had grown the fan base to where it was one of the rare team female sports that had a strong interest and a great model.
“It was kind of confusing and hard for me to realize that’s what was going to happen to us.”
Softball officially entered the Olympics as a medal sport for the first time in 1996 in Atlanta. The U.S. defeated China that year and followed it up with a victory over Japan in 2000 in Sydney.
The 2004 team is still widely considered to be the best softball team of all time. Led by the likes of Jennie Finch, Lisa Fernandez and Crystl Bustos, the U.S. rolled to nine victories.
“The team was there for more than just winning. They were there to set a whole new standard on the game,” Candrea said. “I think the 2004 team played this game as well as any group of athletes we’ve ever seen play.”
Despite the success the sport was enjoying, on July 11, 2005, the IOC voted to remove both softball and baseball from the 2012 Olympics.
It was the first time in 69 years a sport had been taken away from the games, and in 2009 the decision was upheld to keep both sports out of the 2016 Games as well.
The vote to remove softball ended up tied at 52-52 with one voter abstaining.
Ronnie Isham, the director of USA Softball, said people have regrouped and are trying to decide what the next step will be. The International Federations for softball and baseball are working together and could make a joint bid for inclusion in 2020, though no official decision has been made.
Isham said he doesn’t believe the exclusion from the Olympics hurt the sport overall, but it did ruin some dreams of younger players.
“Even though the chances of making the Olympic team are very slim, they still have that dream,” he said. “I think we have lost players that chose other sports over softball.
“The sport is still alive and thriving big-time in the U.S., and that’s probably due to the college game more than anything, and the high school and club game.”
Shelby Babcock led Legacy High School to three Class 5A state softball titles and is currently a sophomore under Candrea at Arizona.
The standout pitcher repeatedly used the word “disappointed” when talking about the decision.
“I think Olympic sports are something all girls strive for,” she said. “You can go play for the national team still and pro leagues, but there’s nothing like the Olympics anymore.
“I was very disappointed because it had always been a dream to play on the Olympic softball team. I’m still disappointed they’re not bringing it back.”
Baseball also working way back
Baseball was officially given medal status for the first time at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
While Cuba has won three golds since then, the United States did bring home gold in 2000. It was the first year that the U.S. used minor-league players to compete in the games.
With baseball excluded from the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, the International Baseball Federation created the World Baseball Classic in 2008 to give players from around the world the chance to compete against one another.
Mark Melancon, who graduated from Golden High School in 2003 and is currently a reliever with the Boston Red Sox, competed for the U.S. national team back in 2005 while at the University of Arizona.
“It was a very, very neat experience. I’ll always remember it,” he said. “I feel privileged to represent our country and travel and see a lot of different cultures. It really gave me an awareness to how baseball is played around the different nations that we went to.”
Melancon said he was disappointed and shocked after baseball was removed from the Olympics and is hopeful the sport will be back in the games as soon as possible. The World Baseball Classic — which resumes in 2013 — is an alternative, but it doesn’t compare to the Olympics.
“I don’t know how much the World Baseball Classic is going to help the sport,” he said. “I think anytime you lose a sport in the Olympics, it’s probably going to hurt us a little bit, just because of how grand that stage is.”
An eye on 2020
The federations for both sports hope to bring baseball and softball back to the Olympics in 2020. Several theories abounded as to why the sports were removed, and Candrea admitted that it’s expensive to build a stadium and practice facilities. Still, he doesn’t see why both sports couldn’t play at the same site.
The dreams of future generations could still be realized should the IOC be convinced that the sports belong back on the world’s biggest stage.
Candrea said softball deserves that chance because of the lack of opportunities to make a career of it.
“The college game is in good hands and gets good exposure, but unfortunately that’s kind of a dead end. A few kids are playing professional softball, but none are making a huge living playing it,” he said. “I’m hoping someday people realize what they did wasn’t right and we’ll have softball back.”


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