Fans who missed out on Cat Osterman’s farewell tour this summer are in luck. Softball’s biggest star just added a lot of additional dates next summer. And maybe summers beyond that.
An Olympic gold medalist, two-time world champion and one of the most dominant strikeout pitchers in college and pro softball history, Osterman announced in April that she planned to retire at the end of the National Pro Fastpitch season. With that final curtain just three weeks from coming down, she isn’t ready to exit the stage. Osterman confirmed to espnW that she will return for at least one more season with the NPF’s USSSA Pride.
“I thought I was ready,” Osterman said. “And then once I got immersed in it again, I realized I wasn’t.”
Pause for the collective groan from hitters across professional softball. They have never been so ready to see the back of someone who until now had been on a farewell tour as seemingly premature as that of New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
Cat Osterman’s return is bad news for opposing hitters but good news for NPF.
Osterman is in the midst of her best statistical season since she joined the league in 2007. Entering Saturday’s game against the Akron Racers, she led the league with 182 strikeouts, was tied with Chicago Bandits ace Monica Abbott with 14 wins and was second to Abbott (0.71 ERA) with a 0.85 ERA in 107 1/3 innings. The strikeouts and innings represent career highs for a player who turned 30 the day she made public her initial retirement plans.
Her record this season is 14-2; the team’s record in its other decisions is 12-9. Her next win will set a single-season personal best. Like Abbott, she could match Desiree Serrano’s single-season record of 18 wins before the playoffs begin Aug. 22. She even pitched the first two no-hitters of her professional career this season.
A forearm injury while pitching for Team USA during the 2010 ISF World Championship kept Osterman out for almost the entire NPF season that year. A season later, she was forced out of a start in the NPF playoffs with an upper arm injury. Subsequently diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which doctors told her was responsible for the earlier injuries, she had surgery that corrected the problem but left her with little time to work into pitching shape for the 2012 season.
She still led the league with a 0.72 ERA and struck out 131 batters in 97 2/3 innings last season. Almost any other pitcher would frame those numbers. Osterman was never any pitcher. At her best, she is the best in softball. At what passed for her low ebb, she was probably never out of the top three. But even as she found ways to pitch around limitations, relying less on the strikeouts that come from unparalleled spin and movement, the concessions took their mental toll.
“I’ve always enjoyed watching our team play,” Osterman said. “I get to play with some of the best players in the world, and I could watch Caitlin Lowe chase down balls in the outfield all day and I could watch Natasha Watley slap and play shortstop all day. That’s fun.
“But for me, the enjoyment of pitching — I don’t want to say it became harder and I didn’t want to work harder to overcome that, but physically it became harder with my body. That made it not so fun to keep trying to overcome that. For me, that was the part that I had started to kind of fall out of love with.”
Finally healthy for a full offseason and season, she has arguably never been better. Games between the Pride and Bandits are the biggest event in the league, the two rivals that played for the past three championships. In need of a win last weekend to remain in the race for the regular-season title, the Pride handed the ball to Osterman and kept handing it to her for all nine innings of a 1-0 win. A day later, she pitched seven innings of relief for another win in extra innings, and the Pride won three of four from the Bandits.
Late in that second appearance, she gave up a leadoff triple. She struck out the next three batters, the top of the lineup for the first-place Bandits.
It’s that kind of performance that makes Osterman one of the rare players in a bat-and-ball sport who can sell tickets on her own.
“I believe she does; I believe she always has,” NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf said. “I think that anybody that’s telling the truth will tell you she affects gate. To me, she just legitimizes that we have the very best athletes.”
Osterman brings people to the park. And as much as she was always one of those asked to sign the most autographs and pose for the most pictures, essentially becoming the sport’s most visible representative when Jennie Finch retired, this season provided a different level of feedback.
“There have obviously been a lot of people who have asked me to reconsider, which is touching,” Osterman said of her initial decision to walk away. “It means I’ve done something in this game, and I appreciate that support.
“Just the outpouring of support and people jokingly or seriously asking me to reconsider, it’s definitely humbling because I play the game to play the game. Obviously, I know we’re put in the position of being role models, but you never really know how many people you impact.”
One thing that won’t change is her role as an assistant coach at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She ran the decision to continue playing by Hilltoppers head coach Lindsay Gardner, her former teammate at Texas, and others in the athletic department and received their support. Had that not been the case, Osterman indicated it might have been a deal breaker when it came to another season in the circle.
Negative reactions from others hold less power to sway her decision, but she understands there may be some grumbling from those who already said goodbye.
“I am fully aware there may be some not-so-kind responses when I come back with an announcement that I’m not retiring,” Osterman said. “You never know how everyone is going to accept that. I’ll wear it for now because I really am really, really happy with this decision.”
Asked if there was any scenario in which she might again pitch for Team USA, given that 2014 is a world championship year and the sport could be in the international spotlight after the International Olympic Committee votes this fall on whether to restore softball to the Olympic program, she said it would have to be a perfect scenario that didn’t mean missing time with the Pride. Given the current lack of any relationship between USA Softball and the NPF, any such dream scenario seems unlikely.
But Osterman will be back in the circle next summer, spinning the ball and befuddling batters a decade after she solidified stardom with Olympic gold in Athens.
As for the future beyond 2014, we’ll just have to wait.
“I think I’ve learned my lesson, and I won’t announce it before the season ever again,” Osterman said. “But right now, I’m going to just go one season at a time, and I’ll see how I feel.”
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– Graham Hays/ESPN
(Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.)