Welcome to the swinging world of softball
In Stacey Porter’s two decades with the Australian softball team, she has enjoyed the highs of twice standing on the Olympic podium and the low of seeing the sport dropped from the Games programme. She believes softball’s free-swinging style will make it one of the feelgood hits of Tokyo 2020.
Porter – captain of Australia’s side – is an enthusiastic guide to the sport that is making a welcome return to the Olympic roster at Tokyo 2020 after a 12 year-hiatus. Many don’t understand its differences with baseball, she admits.
“There are a lot of similarities,” Porter said, “But softball is quicker, and for me, more exciting. The field is a lot smaller, the bases aren’t as far apart, and we have a shorter pitching distance. We also play seven innings, not nine.
“In baseball they do pick-offs and things like that, which you don’t have in softball, so our game moves faster. I guess there are less subtleties, and more hitting.”
“The game is just huge in Japan, and I’ve been a pro here for over 10 years now,” said Porter. “They have big crowds and you can play over 60 games a year. We have the World Championships here in Japan next year, and that will get the appetite going for 2020. The Japan side that won gold in Beijing 2008 are famous over here, so it’s the perfect platform for the sport.
Porter has been an Olympian twice already – and achieved what nobody else could at Athens 2004. “I was the only player in the whole tournament who managed to hit a run off the American side’s pitching,” she said.
“They were an outstanding outfit. But I have to be honest, after we beat a very good Japan side to make it to the gold medal match, I did believe we could beat the US. Silver was great, but I felt we could have won.”
She added bronze to her collection at Beijing 2008. “That was also fantastic, and I could really enjoy the Olympic experience, too. When you go to your first Games, your head is in the sky. I managed to savour the second one a bit more.
“You concentrate on your sport first, but after we were done, I got to appreciate the whole Olympic thing – going round watching other sports, cheering on the other Aussie athletes. It’s the pinnacle. I remember watching Atlanta 1996 when I was in grade nine of school, so being there was very special.”
It is Porter’s swinging ability – “I love it, there’s nothing like hitting” – that has given her a long career.
“I’m originally from Tamworth, New South Wales,” she said. “It’s a little country town but softball is popular there. My mum and sister played, so it was in the family. When I was 15 I got serious, and later realised I could play college softball in America. I left Tamworth airport for the University of Hawaii, wondering what I was doing with my life, leaving everyone behind. But it turned out to be the best thing I’d ever done.”
Porter became an ‘All-American’ – selected as one of her academic year’s finest players, a rare achievement for a non-USA-born citizen – and went on to play professionally in Italy. But it was at the home of the next summer Olympics that she’d find her softball Mecca.
At 38, it’s no guarantee that Porter will get to Tokyo, but she’s definitely making it her aim. “That’s the plan,” she said. “Playing does take a toll on your body, because we have a lot of games in Japan. I play six days a week, four or five hours a day.
“But I rest and recuperate in the off-season, and I’m going to play as long as my body lets me. Most players don’t get much beyond 35, but I want to make it to Tokyo with Australia.”
The fact she was denied the chance to play at London 2012 or Rio 2016 is extra motivation. “It was upsetting to see the sport dropped,” she said. “I was more bothered for the girls who’d never had the chance to be an Olympian than for me. But I’d built my life around trying to get there.”
Another medal is definitely within Australian sights, too.
“The USA will be good, because their college system just keeps producing players, and Japan are already tough, and will be even tougher with the home crowd,” Porter added. “But we have good girls coming through, and are ranked fourth in the world, so there’s every chance for us to give it a go.”