Drive past the Apollo Sports Complex in Grand Forks some summer day and soak in the excitement and passion that comes with young boys playing youth baseball. Each of those boys learned the game not just from dads, grandfathers or coaches, but also from emulating the big-league players they see each night on the TV sports highlights.
Many of those little boys will, at one time or another, dream of playing baseball for a living. It’s a fantasy that tempts multitudes of boys around the world.
After that, drive past the same sports complex and watch young girls play softball. The same passion and excitement exists, but unfortunately for them, their dreams generally are limited to playing in high school or college.
That disappointing disparity was remedied Wednesday when softball was officially returned to the slate of Olympic sports. The International Olympic Committee decided to bring softball back for the 2020 Olympics, after the sport was dropped in 2008. Other sports approved for 2020 are baseball, karate, surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing.
Count us among the girls’ softball enthusiasts who were rooting for its return.
Softball boosters worked for decades to achieve Olympic status, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that it was introduced as a medal sport. In 2008, softball – along with baseball – was dropped from the games.
We were OK with leaving baseball out. Thanks to the worldwide popularity of baseball, adult men have many options to pursue their baseball dreams. Aside from Major League Baseball itself, there are 19 minor leagues affiliated with MLB, along with several other independent leagues.
Professional softball? Apparently, it’s limited to a league that few people have ever heard of. Called National Pro Fastpitch, it includes six teams that pay players roughly $5,500 to compete for three months each summer. We appreciate its existence, but it’s hardly a league of dreams.
The Olympics are different. Games are on TV, and America’s teams generally rank among the world’s best, winning three straight Olympic gold medals before softball was dropped. In the past, the team also has barnstormed the nation, playing games against top amateur clubs and raising great awareness for the sport.
Some members of Team USA have become internationally famous. Pitching great Jennie Finch comes to mind.
In an article she wrote last month for the news website Vox.com, Finch said the decision to eliminate Olympic softball “felt like we were taken back 100 years, to a time when women were discouraged from becoming athletes.”
Little boys can dream about playing baseball on TV. Little girls cannot. It’s not fair, and it’s especially bothersome in a sport like softball, which is a true American pastime.
Interestingly, the United States recently won the world amateur title when it put together a 9-0 tournament record and topped Japan 7-3 in the championship game in Surrey, British Columbia.
Didn’t hear about it? That’s no big surprise, and it’s exactly why the IOC is right to bring softball back as an official Olympic sport.
For the sake of little girls everywhere, it’s the right choice.
Korrie Wenzel for the Herald