The pillars of U.S. softball spent Thursday night in Canada, celebrating the growth of their game.
Olympic Coach Mike Candrea and three-time Olympian Lisa Fernandez watched the U.S. Elite Team play in the Canada Cup. They bragged about the health of their sport: how a record five teams would compete in the 2005 World Cup of Softball; how the NCAA Softball World Series would be heavily televised; how pitcher Jennie Finch made the July 11 cover of Sports Illustrated.
They knew almost nothing, they said, about an ongoing vote in Singapore that would devastate their sport.
The International Olympic Committee voted Thursday to eliminate baseball and softball from the 2012 London Games. A day later, shocked representatives from baseball and softball dealt with the wreckage. Baseball, bolstered by a strong professional foundation, will survive just fine. Softball might not.
"We are truly one of those sports that needs the Olympics," said Fernandez, who has won three gold medals. "This is something that is going to be devastating from the ground up. It's debilitating. This is a huge blow."
It hurt even more, Fernandez said, because it came unexpectedly. The veteran pitcher felt so secure about softball's Olympic future that she forgot about Thursday's vote, only remembering it when her cell phone rang at 9 p.m. and a U.S. softball spokesperson told her the news. Fernandez laughed, thinking it was a joke.
Candrea reacted with similar disbelief. He woke up yesterday morning and grabbed a newspaper. When he didn't see a story about the IOC decision, he thought, for a fleeting moment, that he only had dreamed softball's exclusion.
"I thought, honestly, that we were in very good shape," Candrea said. "Because of the Olympics, there are a lot more kids growing up and dreaming to be a Jennie Finch or a Lisa Fernandez. Now maybe that's not going to happen, and I can't figure out a good reason why."
Softball became a medal sport in 1996, after 30 years of petitioning. Prior to the 2004 Olympics, the IOC asked softball to move back the outfield fences (from 200 feet to 220) and the mound (from 40 feet to 43) to create more runs. USA Softball, somewhat begrudgingly, consented.
In the end, though, the U.S. team might have been victimized by its own dominance. In 2004, the Americans did not allow a run until the gold medal game, when they beat Australia, 5-1. That marked the third consecutive gold for the U.S. team and sparked murmurs that the rest of the world lagged too far behind.
"Our kids excelled on the field of play through effort and determination, and to have that counted against us is really devastating," said Ron Radigonda, USA Softball executive director. "We worked forever to get into the Olympics, and then to lose it overnight? That's just devastating."
Baseball representatives, if not as devastated, were equally angry. Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, who managed the U.S. team that failed to qualify for the Olympics in 2003, lashed out against the IOC before yesterday's game against Philadelphia.
"It's just a flat-out bad decision," Robinson said. "Why would you eliminate a sport that everybody in the world can play? . . . It's kind of mind-boggling. But most of the people that make up the Olympic Committee have their head in a closet anyway. They're not what I would call baseball people."
Nationals leadoff hitter Brad Wilkerson, who played on the 2000 gold medal-winning U.S. team, said yesterday he was glad he got into the Olympics when he had the chance. So too is Nationals relief pitcher Jon Rauch, who played on the 2000 team and had the Olympic rings tattooed on his leg.
"It was a great experience just to be in the village seeing all those athletes," Wilkerson said.
It's also an experience Fernandez might now forfeit in 2008. Since she's participated in the Olympics three times already, Fernandez said she would feel guilty taking a spot on the final team in Beijing.
"There are so many of them, and they're all going to be cheated," Fernandez said. "Do I really want to take their chance?"
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report from Philadelphia.