By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
and ELISE TAKAHAMA
Rafu Staff Intern
IRVINE.–The strongest statement made at the 2014 World Cup of Softball may not have been who won, but simply how many teams took part and which two met in the gold medal game.
The United States and Japan have dominated international softball for most of the last two decades, a fact that is believed to have had strong influence in the International Olympic Committee’s decision to drop both softball and baseball following the 2008 summer games in Beijing.
But only one of those two squads made it to Sunday’s final at Bill Barber Park in Irvine. Japan, without the services of Yukiko Ueno, arguably the game’s most consistently dominant pitcher of the last 10 years, was sidelined with injury as her team waited to play in the third-place match.
The U.S. had no easy time in reclaiming the gold against Canada in a 5-2 win. The Americans had their string of six straight World Cup titles snapped last year by Japan, who took the inaugural event in 2005.
In the later third-place game, Japan fell to Taiwan (known in the tournament as Chinese Taipei) for the second time in as many days, a 3-1 loss in the tournament’s last match.
The rise of teams such as Canada, Venezuela and Taiwan has given validity to the argument in favor of reinstating softball for the Olympics. This year’s World Cup featured seven teams, including Mexico and the Philippines.
For several of Team Japan’s members, the push to have softball back on the Olympic schedule has an added urgency. During last year’s World Cup, the IOC awarded the 2020 Summer Games to Tokyo.
“The JOC [Japanese Olympic Committee] has been working extremely hard to get us back in the Olympics,” said Japan assistant coach Mary Lucy Casarez. “They have a new president now, who understands what a huge crowd would be attending softball games in Tokyo.”
Casarez is a native of San Diego who starred at Arizona State and played professionally in Japan before joining the coaching staff. She said the Olympics have traditionally not been a stage on which Japan excels in teams sports, but softball is an exception.
“They’d be defending a gold medal, since they won the last one [in 2008],” she said. “Not only would it be good for Japan to play for a medal at home, but the excitement would be very, very good for the sport.”
The Americans and Japanese were the first to push for inclusion of softball in the Olympics, back in the 1940s. Organizations such as the Japanese Softball Association, the Amateur Softball Association of America and the International Softball Federation continued to fight through the ’50s and ’60s, but without much luck. Softball was not only known for being “too big and too expensive,” but also fell short of the requirement that the sport must be played in at least 11 countries and have 29 national federations affiliated with it. At the time, there were only 15 national bodies affiliated with it.
However, after years of battling for inclusion, softball was finally added to the Olympic program as one of the women-only sports, just in time for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
But just nine years later, it faced another major defeat.
Only two out of 28 sports were dropped before the 2012 London Games, a decision made through a secret vote within the IOC. Though devastatingly shocking for players, coaches, and fans, it was revealed that baseball and softball had been decreasing in popularity since 2002. Finally, former IOC president Jacques Rogge pushed to move forward with the cut.
“Needless to say, these sports are very, very disappointed,” Rogge told the National Fast-pitch Coaches Association after the sport was dropped. “However, I have to emphasize the fact that they should not fear this purge. The fact is that they shall not be included in the program of the 2012 Olympic Games, but it does not disqualify them forever as Olympic sports.”
For Ueno, however, the games in Tokyo may simply come too late. The first pitcher to toss a perfect game in Olympic competition will be 38 when Japan hosts its second summer games (the last time was Tokyo in 1964).
Ueno sat out this year’s World Cup with knee soreness, but Casarez said the hurler is expected to be available for the World Championships, getting under way next month in the Netherlands.
As the sun sets on Ueno’s career, however, Japan has a wealth of talent to fill the void. The team features outfielder Eri Yamada, often called the “female Ichiro,” due to her batting style’s similarity to baseball star Ichiro Suzuki.
While only two years younger than Ueno, Yamada doesn’t suffer the stresses involved with pitching, and successful hitters who stay healthy can expect relatively long careers in softball.
Japan also boasts the tremendously gifted Yuka Ichiguchi, a natural right-hander whose father taught her to bat from the left side for its inherent advantages. The 22-year-old went 2 for 3 on Sunday, including a triple and a fly-out to deep center that she narrowly missed sending over the fence.
During last year’s World Cup, Ichiguchi told The Rafu that she was heartbroken about the decision to exclude her sport from the Olympics.
“It’s my dream to take part in the Olympics, so I’m very sad about that. I’ve lost the goal I’ve been striving for,” she commented. “I haven’t lost hope. I hope it will be back.”
Baseball and softball, now being counted as a joint sport, still have a chance to be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Last September, wrestling – which had also been cut from the Olympic schedule – was reinstated, leaving one precious possible opening for a return.
The baseball-softball combination, as well as squash, are candidates to rejoin the Olympics. The final decisions will be made this December at an Agenda 2020 meeting.
With her level of play and the improvement of teams around the world, the optimism of Ichiguchi – and the softball faithful around the globe – may be far from unfounded.