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Monica Abbott embodies softball's growth while hoping to be part of its next surge

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Monica Abbott catches the ball during the team USA Softball practice at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium on Tuesday, July 20, 2010, in Oklahoma City, Okla.  

Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman ORG XMIT: KOD
Monica Abbott catches the ball during the team USA Softball practice at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium on Tuesday, July 20, 2010, in Oklahoma City, Okla. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman ORG XMIT: KOD

To see how far softball has come in the past decade, look at the career of Monica Abbott.

You likely remember her as the fire-throwing pitcher from Tennessee. She spent a lot of time here back in the mid-2000s when the Volunteers made three appearances in the Women’s College World Series.

Since her college days, her storied career has added interesting chapters. Almost a decade of pro ball in the United States. More than a decade of it in Japan. Then a couple years ago, she became the first Million Dollar Woman. She signed a six-year, $1 million contract believed to be the most lucrative ever paid by an American pro franchise to a female athlete in a team sport.

Abbott embodies how much softball has grown.

Yet, more is needed.

In less than two weeks, Abbott will be in Oklahoma City again, this time for the Gold Ball Gala. It is a fundraising event for the U.S. national team, which is gearing up for softball’s return to the Olympics in 2020.

Why is Team USA raising money?

Softball’s status as an Olympic sport isn’t permanent. Under new rules, host cities can propose the addition of sports for their Games. Tokyo wanted softball because it is one of Japan's most popular sports, so it will be included in 2020.

Nothing else is guaranteed, and that temporary status means softball receives less funding from the United States Olympic Committee. There’s not as much money to train. Or travel. Or pay players.

“There is a financial piece that can’t be ignored,” Abbott said the other day via telephone from Japan. “We have that challenge in front of us.

“We can’t compete at the highest level if we don’t have the support.”

Abbott knows first-hand what strong support can do for a player. She went from good to great because she had the opportunity to make a career out of softball.

“But I’m not everyone," she said. "Not everyone gets that opportunity.”

Abbott has made the most of it.

While she was a dominating force early in her career, she has gotten better. Back in 2017, Sports Illustrated dubbed her the greatest of all time in softball. The ultimate. The GOAT.

“In fact, she may be the goatiest of all GOATs,” SI opined, “which is to say that the ace … is more dominant in her sport than anyone else in any other.”

Abbott, who stands 6-foot-3, has always thrown hard, rocketing the ball toward the plate at over 70 mph, making the catcher’s mitt pop with such ferocity you wonder if it might explode.

Because softball’s distance from rubber to home is shorter than baseball’s, a 71-mph pitch seems like a 100-mph one in baseball. Lots of big-time softballers throw between 70 and 73.

Abbott throws 77.

Her power originates from what she has called “the power position.” Abbott always has gotten low during her pre-pitch routine, bending at the waist, forearm on her thigh, eyes on her catcher. But now, she goes from the bend to a crouch, squatting a bit right before her windup, generating even more power.

“It’s evolved over time,” she said of her pitching motion. “There’s been things added. There’s been things taken away. There’s been things tried. The only way someone can figure stuff like that out is over time.”

She acknowledges the growth doesn't happen without the opportunities. The pro leagues she’s played in. The coaches she’s worked with. The career she’s been afforded.

Abbott wants lots more players to have those opportunities in the future.

She realized her potential by becoming a bi-continental pro, but she hopes softball’s inclusion in the Olympics next year might trigger the next surge of growth. Maybe imaginations will be sparked. Maybe opportunities will be launched.

While so much has improved since she was in college -- Abbott is best-pitcher-in-the-world proof of that -- she is also aware of how much more her sport can grow.

“I really believe as a sport and as a country … people will come together and rally behind this team,” Abbott said. “We need people to do that.”

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.

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GOLD BALL GALA

When: 6 p.m., May 29

Where: Cox Convention Center

What: In addition to a cocktail hour and dinner, three-time Olympic gold medalist Leah O’Brien-Amico will speak and former UCLA head coach Sue Enquist will be the keynote speaker. USA Softball women’s national team members scheduled to appear include Monica Abbott and Keilani Ricketts.

Tickets: Single tickets are $125. Tables start at $1,000. Go to USASoftballStore.com to purchase or for more information.

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

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