In August 2016, the International Olympic Committee is expected to decide if baseball and softball will be re-added for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
To be more precise, the IOC will be looking at men’s baseball and women’s softball.
At the ongoing Pan American Games, the U.S. baseball and softball teams are vying for medals against other North and South American nations.
To be more precise, the U.S. men’s and women’s baseball teams and men’s and women’s softball teams are competing at the Pan Am Games.
It’s the first time both genders are playing baseball and softball at the Pan Am Games, with women’s baseball making its Pan Am Games debut and men’s softball returning to the program of the quadrennial multisport event for the first time since 2003.
Women’s baseball and men’s softball have never been part of the Olympics. Every Olympic proposal for baseball or softball has been exclusively for men’s baseball or women’s softball, according to the World Baseball Softball Confederation.
“The long-term plan and strategy would be to position men’s softball and women’s baseball for potential Olympic consideration, given the opportunity,” a World Baseball Softball Confederation official said in an email.
But it wouldn’t happen soon, which makes this month’s Pan American Games the closest thing to the Olympics that these women’s baseball and men’s softball players can experience.
“It’s clearly the biggest event that women’s baseball has ever had,” said U.S. outfielder Tamara Holmes, a 41-year-old who in the 1990s played for the Colorado Silver Bullets, a barnstorming women’s team that once engaged in a benches-clearing brawl with an 18-and-under boys team and, later, became who was believed to be the first female position player on a men’s professional baseball team, the independent league Massachusetts Mad Dogs.
The U.S. women are certainly medal contenders at the Pan Am Games, if not gold-medal favorites. In the Women’s Baseball World Cup, they have finished no worse than third in all six editions of the even-numbered-year tournament that debuted in 2004. Only Japan has a better record.
The accolades — and the sport itself — are lost on the general public.
Another U.S. player, Malaika Underwood, said people will often ask what sport she plays. She will answer, “baseball player,” and will usually be corrected. “Oh, you play softball.”
Men’s softball players can relate.
“I hear it all the time, you’re playing a girls sport,” said Chris Miljavac, a U.S. infielder and project manager/estimator at Miljavac Electric in St. Joseph, Mo., who like many men picked up slow-pitch softball once his competitive baseball days were over. “We ride the coattails of the women’s team.”
Miljavac didn’t find slow-pitch demanding enough. So he tried fast-pitch, where pitch speeds can reach mid-80 miles per hour from a mound 46 feet away, he said.
“The reaction time to hit fast-pitch is less than the reaction time for Major League Baseball players to hit a 100-mph fastball from 60 feet away,” Miljavac said. “Softball players kind of pride ourselves in that.”
The U.S. men’s softball team’s sights are set on Pan Am Games host Canada, the defending Pan Am champion and the reigning World champion.
“It’s as close as we’re going to get to the Olympics,” said captain Matt Palazzo, the son of a fast-pitch player who turned to softball after playing college baseball.
The U.S., which took silver to Canada at the 2003 Pan Am Games, hasn’t won a World title since 1988.
“You really get treated well at the Pan American Games,” said U.S. manager Denny Bruckert, 70, who was an assistant coach at the 1999 Pan Am Games. “I can remember all the gear that we got.”
The Pan Am Games experience is hard to explain, Miljavac said. Many of the athletes with whom the women’s baseball and men’s softball players share village and dining hall space use the event as training for the Olympics.
“But you share common goals,” said Miljavac, who remembered meeting Olympic champion softball pitchers Jennie Finch and Cat Osterman at the 2003 Pan Am Games, “to be the best in your sport and, obviously, you’re fighting for one common goal, to win the gold and represent USA as proudly as you can.”