THE PITCHING RUBBER in the center of a softball field's chalk ring is 43 feet from home plate. That's 17½ feet closer than Major League Baseball's rubber, and a ball thrown 71 mph from that distance looks like a 100-mph big league fastball. But what Monica Abbott throws looks even faster.
The batter enters the box, and Abbott lowers her 6'3" frame into a crouch somewhere between a skier's and a sprinter's, what she calls the "power position." From there, with a precise combination of grace and strength, she explodes upwards, achieving triple extension: the ankle, the knee, the hip all in a line so that after she releases the softball, it screams across the plate at 77 mph. That's the equivalent of a 108-mph major league baseball. It's a flash of yellow, a streak barely visible before the umpire calls it a strike.
Abbott, 31, is softball's GOAT. In fact, she may be the goatiest of all GOATs, which is to say that the ace of the Conroe (Texas) Scrap Yard Dawgs of the National Pro Fastpitch league is more dominant in her sport than anyone else in any other. Most professional softball pitchers throw 70 mph; the good ones hit 73. Then there's Abbott.
In 2016, Abbott, was nearly twice as good as anyone else in the NPF. The southpaw went 19--3, while no other pitcher in the league won more than 10 games. Her league-leading 0.98 ERA was more than twice as low as the next best (2.07). One other pitcher hit triple-digit strikeouts, with 100; Abbott had 185. Over her first nine seasons in the league she's played on three championship teams while going 172--32 with a 1.04 ERA and 1,364 K's. "Monica is the best pitcher in the world at this time," says the Dawgs' assistant GM, Michael Steuerwald.
And she's paid like it. In 2016, Abbott signed the league's first $1 million contract.
The NPF began in 2004; it kicked off its 14th season on May 31 with six teams. GMs must squeeze a 26-player roster under a $175,000 salary cap. That means only a few players earn more than $20,000, and the average salary for the three-month season is $6,700. Many of the top players, including Abbott, suit up in Japan's pro league in the U.S. off-season. Even Abbott's million is spread over six years, paying a base salary of $20,000 with "attendance bonuses" (a loophole) making up the rest. But like Nolan Ryan's million-dollar contract in 1979, the first in MLB history, Abbott's deal was a statement. Still, "one great contract does not put the league where it needs to be," says NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf. "We will truly take a step forward when all athletes are able to make enough to compete professionally full-time."
Growing up in Santa Cruz, Calif., Abbott started playing softball at age five. In fifth grade her mother took her to see the Olympic torch on its way to Atlanta, and the moment ignited something in Monica. "I realized that I really loved pitching," she says, "and set a goal to compete in the Olympics and play college softball."
She did both. At Tennessee, Abbott became the first pitcher in Division I history to record 500 strikeouts in each of her four seasons. By the time she graduated in 2007, she was the all-time NCAA leader in wins (189), strikeouts (2,440) and shutouts (112), with 23 no-hitters. In 2008, Abbott made the U.S. Olympic team and pitched a perfect game in an 8--0 victory over the Netherlands. (The U.S. won silver; Japan took the gold.)
Softball was cut from the 2012 and '16 Olympics, but after a campaign by the International Softball Federation, the sport will return for the Tokyo Games in 2020. Meanwhile, ratings for last year's College World Series finals rose to 1.9 million, an all-time high. As softball's best player hits her peak, the sport may be doing the same. Says Abbott, "I really do think it's just a matter of when—when is everyone going to catch on?"
Abbott is the goatiest of all GOATs; the softball ace is more dominant in her sport than anyone else in any other.