World Cup Brings Softball Back Into Spotlight

Wednesday, July 11th 2007, 7:18 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ For an eighth grader named Jennie Finch, playing softball at Hall of Fame Stadium was the kind of experience that dreams are built on.

Now that she's made it, the goal for Finch and her U.S. teammates is to try to inspire another generation of young girls _ and not just ones who might dream of wearing the red, white and blue.

To help softball regain its place in the Olympics _ which will be taken away after next year's Beijing Games _ players have one eye on helping build the sport around the world and another on winning this week's World Cup of Softball.

``Last year's World Cup was shown all over the world, so I think it's crucial as far as just getting young girls to be interested in the sport of softball and showing how the game is played and what level it can be played at,'' said Finch, who has returned to pitch for the U.S. after having her first child last summer.

Softball, which was cut from the 2012 Olympics in London out of a perceived lack of global appeal, has been making a push to earn a place in the 2016 Olympics. The International Softball Federation last month announced a ``Back Softball'' campaign aimed at convincing International Olympic Committee members that the sport should return.

Two new countries _ Venezuela and the Dominican Republic _ will join the six-team field at the third annual World Cup, replacing Britain and Australia from last year's event. The U.S. draws Venezuela for its opening game Thursday.

``There's more fight than this event or any event is going to probably solve at this stage,'' said U.S. coach Mike Candrea, who returns to the site where his Arizona team has won back-to-back NCAA softball titles.

``I think we can only do what we can do as players and coaches, and that's be able to go out and try to get some of the best teams in the world and put it on television as much as possible and increase the interest and the exposure of the sport,'' Candrea said.

Some players have attempted to go beyond the field in the crusade for softball. Outfielder Jessica Mendoza made a trip to South Africa, where her status as an Olympic gold medalist helped draw the attention of the Cape Town mayor _ who she said had never seen softball before.

``For me, just bringing any kind of notoriety and excitement to the countries I go to helps bring in funding and just attention where a lot more is needed,'' Mendoza said.

But those trips aren't easy. Without a high-paying salary, Mendoza had to make calls to find sponsors to fund the trip and did much of the planning on her own. If it were simple, she thinks many of the other U.S. players would be making international appearances, too.

``I think there's a lot of girls on this team that would actually love to do this kind of stuff. It's just funding,'' Mendoza said.

With the top-ranked team in the world and the Women's College World Series easily breaking attendance records, the popularity of the sport isn't an issue in the country where softball began. But it's not like that everywhere, including some European countries where the IOC is rooted.

Finch recalls meeting people in Italy during a softball tour and during the 2004 Athens Olympics who weren't familiar with the sport.

``When we went over for the Olympics, they were like, 'Softball what?''' Finch said.

It's that perception that the sport must overcome.

While softball officials take care of the politics leading up to the 2009 vote, which will determine whether the sport gets reinstated, players hope they can showcase the sport in next year's Olympics and in the run-up to Beijing.

``We know we're in 2008, so right now our goal is to try to get prepared for that and do what we can do along the way,'' Candrea said.

Players believe one way to help their cause is to return to the elite form that's led the U.S. to all three Olympic gold medals.

``I think on the field we should play our game and show the passion for the sport _ not only the preparation and all the physical part of softball, but also the emotional part,'' Mendoza said. ``When people come up to me and they've watched the games at the World Series, the World Cup, whatever it is, that's what they love to see.

``That's what I feel like a lot of sports have lost. You see a lot of professional athletes, it's their job. For us, we're definitely not making a ton of money doing this, so it's all heart. I feel like to show that when we're on the field is what's going to get this sport to keep going.''