CLEVELAND (AP) — Jessica Mendoza traveled the world playing tournaments and in two Olympics for the powerful U.S. softball team.
That decade-long journey, for now, is over.
Mendoza, a two-time Olympic medalist, and seven of her teammates from the 2008 Beijing Games, will not play for Team USA this year, opting to play professionally instead in hopes of growing a sport dropped from the Olympic program.
“I never imagined this would be how I would leave USA Softball,” Mendoza said Wednesday in a phone interview from her home in California. “I hope it’s not the end.”
Mendoza said she and the others informed Amateur Softball Association of America this month that they were declining invitations to attend the U.S. team’s June camp so they can play exclusively in the four-team National Pro Fastpitch league.
Mendoza, who is also president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said it became too difficult for players to fulfill the obligation of playing for the U.S. team and in the NPF, whose schedules intersect. Moreover, because the U.S. Olympic Committee has dropped funding — over $1 million in an Olympic year — for softball, there was no financial reward for playing for their country.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Mendoza, adding that she and her teammates spent months discussing their options. “In the end, we all wanted to do the best thing for the sport of softball. Everyone agreed that a change really needed to be made.”
Fellow Olympians Natasha Watley, Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, Caitlin Lowe, Lauren Lappin, Andrea Duran and Vicky Galindo also will not play for the U.S. during the upcoming 2011 season. That doesn’t mean some of them may not return in the future.
Ron Radigonda, executive director of ASA/USA Softball, said the U.S. program went through a similar turnover in 2001 when several players left to play professionally. He’s disappointed Team USA is losing its nucleus, but that doesn’t change his commitment to fielding and funding teams for international competition.
“This was their decision and we support it,” Radigonda said. “These women are very near and dear to us. But we look at this as an opportunity to rebuild the program. … We have married players who need to make a living. We can’t fault anybody for that.”
Olympic softball sustained a devastating hit when it was voted off the program for the London Games in 2012. Last year, a bid to get it back in 2016 was rejected when the IOC voted in golf and rugby for the Rio Olympics. Softball was on the program from 1996-2008, with the U.S. team winning three gold medals and a silver.
While the sport’s popularity has grown worldwide, helped by the American team’s success and the appeal of cross-over star pitcher Jennie Finch, it’s still lacking support in Europe, where the IOC’s membership has long associated it with baseball.
Mendoza’s hope is that a strong pro league with more teams and featuring some of the game’s biggest names can attract a wider audience, sponsors and, perhaps most importantly, television revenues.
Mendoza said part of her choice to focus on playing professionally stemmed from talks with tennis legend Billie Jean King, whose decision in the 1970s to leave the U.S. tour and start the Virginia Slims circuit prompted the growth of women’s tennis here and abroad.
Mendoza said King encouraged her to take softball on a similar, unknown path.
“No one knows what will happen,” Mendoza said. “But what we all want is what’s best for softball, and for its future.”