Harrigan-Mack longs for softball's return

If you go on Lori Harrigan-Mack's Facebook page, you'll see a photo of the United States' Olympic water polo team. It shows the players dressed in softball jerseys, cast in softball poses, in what appears to be the Olympic Village.

That photo is more special to her than striking out the Australian cleanup hitter with the bases loaded in a one-run game.

"What the water polo team did was simply amazing," said Harrigan-Mack, the former UNLV standout who in 2000 pitched the first solo no-hit game in Olympic softball history, against Canada.

When Lori Harrigan pitched, the bases usually weren't loaded with Australians or Japanese or Canadians. Or anybody else.

She won a gold medal in three straight Summer Olympics - Atlanta in 1996, Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004 - before retiring from the sport.

There would be no further Olympic gold for the U.S. in softball.

In 2005, the International Olympic Committee voted to drop softball and baseball, effective with the London Games. In 2008, with the death knell clanging in their ears, the Americans settled for the silver medal in Beijing behind Japan.

When contacted for this column, Harrigan-Mack said they were showing equestrian events from London on TV.

"Horse jumping is on," said the 41-year-old blond left-hander, now chief of security at Mandarin Oriental, a 47-story, five-star hotel on the Strip. "Who needs softball?"

Apparently, not Jacques Rogge and the IOC that he chairs.

Rogge and the IOC are Softball Nazis, in the eyes of Harrigan-Mack and her former teammates.

"No softball for you!" they said in 2005, voting softball (and its distant cousin baseball) out of the Summer Games and off the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Come back in four years? In eight years? In 12?

No, say Rogge and the IOC. Come back when you can bring Derek Jeter and the American baseball stars.

In 12 years, Jeter will be 50 and the mulligatawny and crab bisque will be cold. No matter. For some reason, Rogge and the IOC view baseball and softball as the same thing, like men's or women's swimming or men's and women's gymnastics or men's and women's kayaking.

For every men's sport, there should be a women's sport. That is how the IOC sees it. But there is no synchronized swimming for men at the Olympics. If there was, that old "Saturday Night Live" bit with Martin Short and Harry Shearer wouldn't be nearly as funny.

The London Olympics mark the first time since polo was abolished in 1936 that a sport has been kicked out of the Olympics. (Note to Jacques Rogge and IOC: Polo and water polo, not the same thing.)

Everybody thought at first it was because the Americans had become too dominant in softball. But it's baseball that is driving this double-decker bus.

Until Major League Baseball commits to sending its star players, instead of Tommy Lasorda and the left side of the Toledo Mud Hens' infield, to the quadrennial festival of sport and Visa commercials, baseball and softball are out. "Horse jumping" is in.

(Here's a possible workaround: Turn softball and baseball into winter sports, like basketball was turned into a summer sport. Softball and baseball could be played in a domed stadium in the Swiss Alps or in Russia or in Chicago, when the wind is blowing off the lake, at roughly the same time when guys are missing the cutoff man in the Grapefruit League. Then Derek Jeter could be player-manager, like Lou Boudreau.)

Whereas MLB will survive without the Olympics (unless the NFL starts playing preseason games around Memorial Day, in which case it could be problematic), international softball might struggle without the Olympics, because the Olympics were the sport's de facto World Series.

The Australian government has reduced softball funding because of the ban. And were it not for the Olympics, would any of us know of Jennie Finch?

Well, perhaps the red-blooded American male eventually would have discovered the winsome Ms. Finch. But he might not have discovered Dot Richardson, unless she operated on him, because the star of the 1996 U.S. Olympic softball team is now an orthopedic surgeon. Let's see Derek Jeter try that.

When Lori Harrigan-Mack and her teammates recently were inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, and she was chosen to give the acceptance speech, she did so with grace and dignity, because these are words that best describe her, along with "tough in the clutch."

But she also made an impassioned plea to bring back her sport to the Olympics, to "give back the dream" to young girls and young women who play softball. The one she nurtured while chucking riseballs and dropballs that made the heart of the Cal State Fullerton batting order, or San Jose State's or Pacific's, look silly and helpless.

"Give back the dream," Lori Harrigan-Mack repeated when we chatted.

Give back the dream so when her son, Shawn, who is 5 and has begun to pose difficult questions, asks "When does softball come on?" when he and his mom are watching the Olympics on TV, she'll be able to tell him right after the horse jumping.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.