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Hitting the Big Time

As the Women's College World Series opens in Oklahoma City, softball is soaring in popularity thanks to taut games, TV and a U.S. gold medal

There was a double take, as there so often is when a movie star mingles with the masses. Sweaty from an evening workout at a Venice Beach, Calif., gym, Matt Amundson was caught off guard last October when he encountered a famous dark-haired actor while preparing to order a smoothie at Whole Foods Market. "Hey," the actor said to the hulking Amundson, "I recognize you from somewhere." ¶ "Yeah," Amundson answered, "I played football at UCLA." ¶ The actor squinted for a moment. "No, that's not it." ¶ That's when it dawned on Amundson that something very strange was happening in his universe. "My girlfriend plays softball?" he offered.

"Yes!" exclaimed the actor, who happens to know a thing or two about famous squeezes. "That's it! You're one of those Horsey guys. I saw you on TV."

And that is how, five months after the fact, the boyfriend of 2004 Women's College World Series hero Claire Sua of UCLA got the adoring-fan treatment from Ben Affleck.

As one of the Four Horsemen, a quartet of cheering, crooning Bruins softball fanatics who wear their loyalty on their bulging biceps, Amundson has had a prime seat for the unlikely transformation of a sport once devoid of cool. Stereotyped for decades as an offensively challenged, sparsely attended struggle among brawny women, college softball--and women's fast-pitch softball in general--has moved into the casual fan's field of vision more dramatically than a Jennie Finch rise ball. On Thursday, when the eight-team Women's College World Series begins in Oklahoma City in front of crowds that by the weekend should reach 8,000, the buzz will extend from major league clubhouses to beer-soaked frat houses to living rooms full of wide-eyed schoolgirls.

"This sport is really erupting," says Cal coach Diane Ninemire, whose second-ranked Golden Bears will try to reach the WCWS championship round (this year a best-of-three series) for the fourth consecutive season (box, page 46). "It's faster than baseball, and when people see how exciting it is, they come back for more."

With impressive TV ratings, a Web presence and a crossover appeal cemented by the dominant performance of last year's U.S. Olympic team, softball is poised to make a run at women's basketball as the NCAA's glamour sport for female athletes. For the fourth straight year ESPN or ESPN2 will televise every game of the WCWS, showcasing the sport's winning formula: short, taut games fraught with dramatic comebacks; players who exude enthusiasm; and spirited battles between nasty pitchers and fearsome hitters.

The number of countries with national softball organizations has virtually doubled, to 126, since the 1991 announcement that softball would be an Olympic sport in '96. The 2003 WCWS championship game between Cal and UCLA drew a 1.6 TV rating, meaning it was seen in approximately 1,359,000 households. (The '04 title game, a Bears-Bruins rematch, drew a 1.3 rating.) With the recent launches of College Sports TV and ESPNU and with an assist from the NHL lockout--ESPN's recent softball telecasts got ratings similar to those of regular-season hockey games, some of which aired last year in the same slots--softball's exposure is at an alltime high.

The traffic is similarly robust at the website, started four years ago by Orange County, Calif., high school teacher Steve (Robocoach) Robitaille, whose daughter was then a pitcher for Cal State--Fullerton. UCS is a spirited forum in which coaches, players, parents and fans from all over the world debate everything from Pac-10 supremacy to ugly uniform designs. "Last month," Robitaille says, "there were more than 775,000 hits."

Softball's unofficial welcome to the big leagues came in the wake of the 2003 WCWS. Barry Bonds was so impressed by Cal's power-hitting Veronica Nelson (117 at bats, 107 walks, .692 slugging percentage during her senior season) that he invited the big first baseman to hang with him in the clubhouse before a San Francisco Giants game. The previous year, during her senior season at Arizona, Finch, whose blonde-bombshell looks have helped make her the world's most recognizable player, became friendly with Diamondbacks star Luis Gonzalez after he showed up at a Wildcats game to watch her pitch. Gonzalez later lured one of the Diamondbacks' pitching prospects, Casey Daigle, to see the Cats--which is how Finch came to meet her future husband. "That's the cool thing about spring training being in Tucson," Finch says. "You see major leaguers at [University of] Arizona games all the time."

During the WCWS, some big league clubhouses are captivated by the competition--and the competitors. "We love it!" Oakland A's pitcher Barry Zito says. "We watch and look for hotties, and trip out on how chicks throw that hard."

On a warm Friday afternoon in mid-May in Oklahoma City, softball's version of the Red River Shootout is taking place at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, the sport's Taj Mahal. This gorgeous facility has become the regular home of the WCWS (it will be hosting its 14th series since 1990), and on this day an intriguing Big 12 tournament game between Texas and Oklahoma is tied 1-1 in the bottom of the sixth inning.

The explosive Sooners have runners on second and third base with two outs, but it's the Longhorns fans who are going wild. That's because Cat Osterman, the most spellbinding pitcher in college softball, has come in from the bullpen. The lanky 6'2" lefty takes a few warmup pitches, and the fans are transported back to the mid-1980s, when bunt singles, passed balls and sheer luck represented a team's only hopes of scoring against a star hurler. In 1984 UCLA's aptly named Debbie Doom pitched 102 consecutive scoreless innings. Four years later the NCAA moved the pitching plate back three feet, to 43 from home plate, and the change was later adopted on the international level. Batters were further aided in 1993 when the white ball was replaced by an easier-to-see yellow model with raised red seams. Along the way, advances in bat technology helped deepen the pool of offensive standouts, empowering not only big swingers but also "slappers"--lefties who merely make contact with the ball while lunging toward first base.

Yet against Osterman, even the nation's best hitters tend to look silly. This time she faces four batters in the heart of Oklahoma's order, including catcher Heather Scaglione, a national player of the year finalist, and fans each one. The energized Longhorns score twice in the seventh and prevail 3-1 en route to winning the tournament.

After spending 2004 with the U.S. Olympic team (she allowed no runs and struck out 23 in 14 2/3 innings in Athens), Osterman returned to Austin for her junior season, and the weak-hitting Longhorns immediately vaulted into the national-title hunt. Cat's stats (28-6 record, 0.32 ERA, 539 strikeouts in 243 2/3 innings) suggest that she blows away hitters with pure power, but she actually confounds them with her uncanny late movement, particularly on a drop ball that her Olympic teammate Finch calls "the dirtiest you'll ever see."

"The comment I get the most often from guys is, 'Wow, you dominated that game,'" Osterman says. "That's because guys are all about domination."

Over the next week fans in Oklahoma City and in front of sets across the nation will have plenty of intriguing players to watch, from scintillating leadoff hitters such as Arizona outfielder Caitlin Lowe (.527 batting average, 27 stolen bases) to mashers such as shortstop Jessica Merchant (.394, 21 homers, 61 RBIs, .798 slugging percentage) of top-seeded Michigan. There will be dramatic comebacks and constant chatter in the dugouts. "Women are so invested in the game, and that's something fans pick up on," says Cal pitcher Kristina (Goth Girl) Thorson, whose dyed hair and heavy makeup have helped her attract, she says, "stalkers of both genders."

Among Thorson's biggest fans are the Horsemen, who probably won't join the seventh-seeded Bruins in Oklahoma City because of work commitments. "What can I say?" says Amundson, whose employer is Red Bull. "Welcome to corporate America."

At least now he can shop in peace.

Odds Are It'll Be a Great Series

SI handicaps the eight teams in the double-elimination WCWS

CAL (3-to-2 odds) This senior-dominated starting lineup has it all: contact hitters, speed, defense and two aces, Kelly Anderson and Kristina Thorson.

TEXAS (2 to 1) If the light-hitting Longhorns can score even one run a game, they might ride the Cat Osterman Express to their first title.

UCLA (3 to 1) Conventional wisdom says you can't win it all with a freshman pitcher. Conventional wisdom has never met the Bruins' Anjelica (Jelly) Selden, who gives UCLA a shot at a third straight title.

MICHIGAN (7 to 2) Top-ranked for most of the year, the Wolverines have an explosive lineup and a stellar staff led by Jennie Ritter--but will the lack of regular-season competition doom them?

ARIZONA (5 to 1) Speed (Caitlin Lowe, Autumn Champion) and a power pitcher (Alicia Hollowell) make the Cats dangerous despite their lack of a big stick.

TENNESSEE (8 to 1) The Vols brutalized Pac-10 co-champ Stanford in the Super Regionals, and if 6'3" ace Monica Abbott's left arm doesn't falter, they could make big noise.

ALABAMA (15 to 1) The team caught a break in the Super Regionals against injury-plagued Texas A&M, but with workhorse pitcher Stephanie VanBrakle and good hitters, the Tide has a chance to roll.

DEPAUL (25 to 1) The biggest surprise in Oklahoma City, the Blue Demons, Conference USA tournament champs, are a solid team led by senior first baseman Saskia Roberson.

"This sport is really erupting," says Ninemire, coach of the Golden Bears. "It's faster than baseball, and when people see how exciting it is, they come back for more."




All eight teams competing in Oklahoma City this week bring at least one player of note. VICKY GALINDO, CAL, Third Base



[see caption above]ANDREA DURAN, UCLA, Third Base



[see caption above]JESSICA MERCHANT, MICHIGAN, Shortstop



[see caption above]CAT OSTERMAN, TEXAS, Pitcher



[see caption above]SASKIA ROBERSON, DEPAUL, First Base



[see caption above]KRISTIE FOX, ARIZONA, Shortstop



[see caption above]ASHLEY COURTNEY, ALABAMA, Rightfielder


[see caption above]MONICA ABBOTT, TENNESSEE, Pitcher




Finch, who plays for the Chicago Bandits professional team, is a big hit with both Cubs and White Sox fans.