Megan Willis more than Cat Osterman's catcher
It can't be entirely coincidental that for all the other ways in which she is recognizable, Megan Willis may be most instantly identifiable by her laugh.
Loud and unapologetic, a self-described cackle, the catcher lets it loose with the force of a pickoff attempt and the precision of a throw sailing wildly into the outfield.
It is not the sound of a silent partner in anything, let alone one of softball's longest-running successes.
For much of the past decade Willis has been recognizable as much by association as anything else. To many, she is first and foremost Cat Osterman's catcher -- or the unofficial title's full form, Cat Osterman's catcher with the long blonde hair. The two first teamed up at the University of Texas, then with the Rockford Thunder and USSSA Pride in National Pro Fastpitch and even in a Japanese professional league. Interrupted by only one professional season as rivals and Osterman's various stints with the national team, their partnership rivals almost any in women's team sports.
But such is Osterman's prominence in softball -- a two-time Olympian, two-time world champion and one of the most dominant pitchers in college history -- that their partnership is often perceived less in the manner of Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor on the sand or Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird on the basketball court than that of golfer and caddy.
One is there because of the other, the logic goes. It's why Willis only half-jokingly considered "CatsCatcher.com" as a domain name when she launched her own website.
The mistake is thinking Willis, 27, is just along for the ride after all these years. That she is someone so set on enjoying the journey helped make the partnership what it is.
"I think we both have a mutual understanding of where our relationship is," Willis said. "I know a lot of other people from the outside think I get a lot out of it, being Cat's catcher. And I do, I absolutely do, and I'm forever grateful for her trust in me. But I know that I don't just get benefits from it; she definitely gets benefits out of our relationship, too."
"I'm not riding her coattails because I know that it's not just me wanting this. I know that she truly wants me there because I do make her a better pitcher. I can help her in ways that some other catchers might not be able to help her. I know that she really trusts in me, and because of that trust, that's why she asks for me."
Maybe it's a stretch to suggest destiny decided Willis and Osterman should be paired together. Younger by two years, Willis knew of Osterman before she met the pitcher -- everyone in softball knew something about the tall lefty from Texas who held her own against the national team when she was in high school and dominated college batters from the moment she arrived in Austin. But Osterman, too, knew of Willis before they met for the first time at a tournament in Canada when Osterman was pitching for Team USA and Willis was still in high school. Osterman was tipped off by her uncle about the promising young catcher from Arizona.
Of all the neighbors Willis might have had as she learned the art of catching, one was friends with the uncle of the best pitcher in a generation. Fate is a funny thing.
Willis spent her freshman year at Texas settling in, while Osterman took the year off to play on the Olympic team that eventually won gold in Athens. Willis was comfortable in her surroundings by the time Osterman returned. She was so comfortable that the returning medal winner found herself perplexed by the carefree chatterbox behind the plate. Tunnel vision helped Osterman earn her place as the youngest member of arguably the greatest softball team ever assembled. There was softball, school and scarce time for much else; her new catcher loved everything else.
Willis chose Texas in part because she wanted to play in the Women's College World Series and compete for a championship. Spending two seasons with Osterman seemed like a good place to start. But she also came to Austin because few college towns offered a better sampling of music, food and night life, all things she wanted in equal measure with softball.
"She was always a very good student, always came out to practice ready to get after it every single day, but I tell you what, she had a very healthy social life," Texas coach Connie Clark recalled.
Instead of friction between polar opposite personalities, Willis helped Texas' most accomplished athlete enjoy a panoramic view of college.
"It ended up being a really good pairing because I probably needed to be a little more laid-back and relax just a little bit and have a little more fun and not be so serious about it," Osterman said. "My first two years of college, I was obviously really serious about it because I was trying to make the [Olympic] team. So I think it was a good pairing because I think I could maybe rein her in a little bit, but she definitely eased me up a little bit and relaxed me. It became really fun; she kind of helped the game become real fun at that college level."
Osterman said she there was an understanding between the Rockford Thunder and the Chicago Bandits that Willis would be reunited with Osterman in the professional ranks. It fell through after the Bandits drafted the catcher in 2007, leaving the two on competing teams for the only time in their careers. Osterman took a hiatus from the professional league the following year while the national team toured in advance of the Beijing Olympics. Willis, too, stepped away from the NPF that year, ostensibly for good at a time when she married former Texas baseball player and current Cincinnati Reds pitcher Sam LeCure (the two subsequently separated). But when Osterman returned to Rockford for the 2009 NPF season, she called Willis and, in her words, begged the catcher to come back.
Willis acquiesced, and the battery led the Thunder to an NPF championship that summer, with Osterman going 11-1 with a 0.42 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 84 1/3 innings.
"She came out and played, and we haven't been split up yet, not by choice," Osterman said.
When the Thunder ceased operations in Illinois and became the Tennessee Diamonds after the 2009 season, Osterman and Willis were traded to the Pride for pitcher Monica Abbott and catcher Shannon Doepking, former college battery for former college battery. When Osterman went to Japan to pitch professionally in 2011, she asked Willis to go with her.
"She knows me well enough to come out and say, 'Hey, you're throwing too hard. Hey, you're trying to guide it.' She's just watched me enough to be able to tell me all the little tidbits," Osterman said. "It's just the connection that Megan knows exactly what to say at the exact right time because she has been around me for so long."
Such longevity makes for a simple equation on the field. The more time they spend together, the closer they become to operating as one. It's tempting to export that same correlation beyond the field, but it makes the sustained strength of their on-field partnership more compelling, not less, that it exists independent of two lives winding their own ways through the world.
"As kids, your friends are who you go out with and who you go shopping with and this and that," Osterman said. "Now being adults, we have our lives. We don't necessarily talk as much as we used to or hang out as much we used to, but I know deep down if I really needed someone to talk to, I would call her in a second and she would be there. It's just different, and it's fun to kind of see how your relationship can grow as you become adults and get in the real world and all of that stuff. She has been my rock."
Willis is a rarity in softball, a non-Olympian closer to 30 years old than to college who nonetheless enjoys mainstream recognition and endorsements. On a Pride roster full of former Olympic stars, she is typically in as much demand among fans after games as any of her teammates. Credit for that popularity goes in part to the competitiveness with which she plays, the energy she exudes and, yes, as the occasional marriage proposal suggests, even that long blonde hair. It would also be obtuse to think it has nothing to do with her connection to one of the most popular pitchers of all time.
To that end, it's not surprising Willis takes as much pride is her development as a hitter as anything she's accomplished as a professional. Long known for having one of the game's best arms, the idea she was a one-dimensional player bothered her. She hit .286 last season in a pitching-strong league where .250 is a respectable batting average. This summer she has surpassed her single-season high with four home runs and there is still a month to play in the regular season. Those numbers aren't among the league's elite, but they are proof she made herself into an offensive asset.
It is the perpetual dilemma. Willis is hardly underexposed. Yet she is also easy to overlook as the beneficiary of good company.
"To be at the very, very top of your game, great catchers are probably some of the most unselfish people you know," Clark said. "That comes with the territory of that position. ... Megan knows [her value]. The coaches know. Cat knows, 'Wow, you are a tremendous difference-maker in my success.' And I think Megan knows that deep in her heart. That's the only place she needs to know it."
Or deep down where that laugh begins. A laugh like that has a life of its own, just like its owner. Someone who makes a living bringing out the best in greatness and a life out of everything else.
"I think softball obviously is life for a lot of us, but you also have to have a lot more to enjoy it," Willis said. "You've got to enjoy all the other small things."