Team USA The Center Of Attention At Softball World Championships
When the ISF World Championship begins Friday in the Netherlands, one year shy of the tournament's 50th anniversary, a legacy of softball supremacy will be on the line for the United States.
American entries are nine-time champions in what was the sport's signature event prior to softball's Olympic inclusion in 1996, regaining that status when that Olympic era ended in 2008. The rest of the globe, in the form of Australia, Japan (twice) and New Zealand, can claim just four world titles. But for the first time since 1986, the United States is not the defending champion, having lost the final to Japan in extra innings two years ago. And for the first time, factoring in Japan's surprise gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, Team USA faces the prospect of losing three out of the four most recent major championships should it come away from Holland with anything less than gold.
There are hefty caveats, mostly centering on the fact that the best American talent is now divided rather than shared between the national team and the domestic professional league, but results are results. Tournaments of late have often ended with something other than "The Star-Spangled Banner" playing.
One legacy that could ultimately well help Team USA render all of the above moot, claiming as its anthem a song with lyrics penned by John Fogerty rather than Francis Scott Key.
No country is ready to play center field like the United States is ready to play center field. That much hasn't changed.
To follow in the footsteps of Laura Berg and Caitlin Lowe, center fielders who patrolled the position in just about every meaningful game for the United States between 1994 and 2010, a player had best be special -- faster than a speeding line drive, able to leap small fences in a single bound and all that sort of thing. As she approaches both her first world championship with Team USA and her junior year at the University of Alabama, Haylie McCleney already has a pretty significant seal of approval.
"It is not only just her skills, but it's her passion for the game," said Berg, the only four-time U.S. Olympian in softball and now an assistant coach for the national team and head coach at Oregon State. "She is what you call old-school. She has savvy and she has a passion for this game. She plays this game the way it is supposed to be played. She doesn't have that age-of-entitlement crap that young players have now. She does not have that; she does not feel that."
Until a recent cold spell during exhibition games the team played in Italy in preparation for the main tournament, McCleney ranked among the team's most productive offensive players this summer. Even with a recent four-game hitless streak, which she broke out of with a 3-for-3 day against Australia to close the week of warm-up games, she still trails only mainstays Valerie Arioto, Raven Chavanne, Sam Fischer and Michelle Moultrie in OPS (Moultrie ably managed center field in the most recent world championship and is now the everyday right fielder). Working mostly from the back half of the order, McCleney leads the lineup in stolen bases and ranks among the leaders in walks and pitches per plate appearance.
Like Berg and Lowe, she is a versatile and valuable run producer.
But also like her predecessors, she is never better than when given a glove and told to go get anything hit her way.
"She's got a hose of an arm," Berg said. "She takes the right angles. She reads the ball off the bat very well. She's got speed. She just has savvy and knowledge of the game that a lot of people don't have.
"For a center fielder, you can see the path of the pitch and you can see the path of the swing, so you know where the ball is going to go when it gets hit. She has that. But she will dive if she needs to, and she has no problem climbing a fence or going through a fence, and that is so refreshing. She is a phenomenal outfielder."
But for a brief spell at shortstop in eighth grade, an adventure she joked had more to do with the team's lack of options than her own infield acumen, McCleney has always been a center fielder.
"It's the best view," McCleney said. "I guess catchers can argue that, but I get to see everything. I get to watch everything unfold from a really cool perspective. The catchers don't get to see the stands a lot of the times, which is where a lot of the entertainment lies in this sport. I get to see everything."
Perhaps it's nothing more than the fact that those who play in the middle of the outfield cover more ground than any other position on the field, but there is something distinctive about center field, something shared by Ken Griffey Jr. and Willie Mays on the baseball field and Berg and Lowe equally so on the softball field. Like a soccer goalie, whose best work may be the positioning and organizing that makes a spectacularly acrobatic save unnecessary, playing center is as much about the lulls between pitches when nothing much appears to be happening as it is about the moment of action in climbing a wall or diving at full stretch.
A center fielder in her own right during her time as a four-time All-American at Stanford, Jessica Mendoza shifted to left field with the national team and had no qualms about the move.
"I learned so much from her," Mendoza said of Berg. "I can remember it like it was yesterday. Just her communication, I mean, constant communication. But it was great information. Softball tends to get a little rah-rah by nature, meaning 'Hey, good job, here we go" -- a lot of talk that's not really useful. Whereas everything that came out of Laura's mouth was useful. ... Literally, just the way she could see things from center and anticipate and then let me know what she was seeing so I could anticipate, it was like having some foreshadowing in your back pocket telling you what was going to happen, giving you a heads up so that you looked really good in about five minutes."
It is in those lulls, after shouting something encouraging to her pitcher, that McCleney, too, gets to work. Able to see what pitch the catcher called, she can judge whether the batter is likely to be early or late with her swing. A changeup, for instance, may make a defensive swing more likely and increase the odds of a ball flared into short center field. Instructions on positioning will come from the dugout -- in addition to Berg, McCleney plays for one of college softball's best outfield instructors in Alabama associate head coach Aly Habetz -- but her own knowledge of a hitter's tendency to pull a ball or go the other way can provide an extra step of a head start or at least an inclination to lean the right way. All the while, no matter where she lines up, she knows exactly how many steps she is from the fence behind her.
"There are a lot of things that run through my head, but it's mainly anticipate, read and react to the ball," McCleney said. "And then going to get whatever I can go and get."
There is something of a tradition when it comes to national team center fielders getting early jumps on not just fly balls, but careers. McCleney is only a year further along in her college career than Berg was at Fresno State when she played in her first major international tournament, the 1994 ISF World Championship. Lowe also debuted for the senior national team shortly before her junior year at the University of Arizona and played in her first world championship a year later. Berg ultimately played in four Olympics and four world championships. Lowe played in one Olympics, three world championships and is still going strong in National Pro Fastpitch at 29 years old after retiring from international competition in 2010.
Everything about the manner in which McCleney plays and approaches the sport suggests she is the heir apparent to arguably the greatest defensive outfielder of all time.
"There's something magical about those two that cannot be taught," Mendoza said of Berg and McCleney. "You'll see it every now and then in baseball, too. You go through the checklists of talent for an outfielder, as far as speed, as far as range, arm strength, all these things. There's one that can never be taught that I just personally did not have naturally, and that's just this natural ability to anticipate where the ball is going before it's even hit. Just knowing they're going to be able to get to this ball, not so much because of their speed or because of their athletic ability, which both of them did have but they weren't the best in their class in that, but it was really more about the fact they are there before anyone else even knows it's going to be there."
The only question is if this first world championship is the beginning for McCleney, as it was for Berg and Lowe, or the beginning of the end.
During the height of her playing days, Berg and teammates would train together once a month in the fall preceding a tournament like the Olympics, then spent most of the spring on the road together playing a schedule of games both grueling and instructive. McCleney and her teammates were selected in the middle of June and have played not quite 30 games together in the weeks since. The average age of the 2008 Olympic team was 26.6 years old. Valerie Arioto is the oldest player on the current team but won't turn 26 until next April.
When Berg was in McCleney's shoes, she was just getting started.
"I had a lot of growing up to do, not just physically but mentally as well, because the international game is very different than college ball," Berg said.
She had Dot Richardson and Lisa Fernandez, veteran teammates she credited with showing her how to go about her business at the international level. McCleney doesn't have that luxury on a team with few holdovers from two years ago, let alone longer than that. But she does have Berg, both this summer and the one before with the junior national team.
"To get to learn from her and spend the last two summers with her has been incredible because she's so knowledgeable about the game, and she's so much fun to be around," McCleney said. "Just being around her, cutting up with her, learning, it's a great experience, and it's something I'll cherish for the rest of my life."
As long as she's out there, one legacy of American softball supremacy lives on without challenge.