Few athletes ever seemed in more control of their surroundings than Cat Osterman did in the pitching circle of a softball diamond. She will exit the circle the same way, at the time and in the manner of her choosing.
Osterman confirmed to espnW that she intends to retire from competition at the conclusion of her upcoming National Pro Fastpitch season with the Florida-based USSSA Pride. The announcement comes on the pitcher's 30th birthday and more than a decade after she first arrived on the national scene as a star at the University of Texas.
"When I first joined the national team, I always thought 2012 would be it," Osterman said. "And obviously, with [softball] getting voted out of the Olympics and the NPF being a continuing option, I stuck around. I can still throw, obviously, but I just have a passion for coaching, and I have a passion for wanting to have time to do other things. So in my heart, as much as I still love the game, my heart's not in it to keep playing past this summer."
Cat speaking after being enshrined in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame
earlier this year.
A two-time Olympian, two-time world champion and the only three-time national college player of the year, Osterman is universally considered one of the greatest pitchers in softball history. Easily identifiable by her 6-foot-2 frame and the shortened version of her given name, Catherine, the left-hander became one of the sport's most popular stars during a period of domestic growth, marked by increased attendance and television ratings for college softball and the continued survival of a professional league. She also was one of its most visible international advocates before softball was dropped from the Olympics after the 2008 Beijing Games.
A Houston-area native who stayed in-state rather than play for one of college softball's traditional West Coast powers, Osterman led Texas -- which started its varsity softball program just five years prior to her arrival -- to three appearances in the Women's College World Series. The Longhorns twice fell one win shy of the championship round. A four-time All-American, she is the only three-time winner of USA Softball Player of the Year, college softball's top award.
She struck out 554 batters as a freshman in 2002, at the time the second-best single-season total in NCAA history, but a mark she would beat in her junior and senior seasons. Although since passed by Monica Abbott as the NCAA's career strikeout leader, Osterman remains the record holder for strikeout rate by a comfortable margin. Known more for the incredible spin and movement she was able to get on pitches rather than her pure speed, she is the only pitcher who ever averaged two strikeouts per inning for an entire college career, totaling 2,265 strikeouts in 1,105 2/3 innings.
She took a year off from school to compete with the United States national team that won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Osterman, the youngest player, struck out a team-high 23 batters and didn't allow a run in 14 2/3 innings in Athens. Her national career continued after college, when she won back-to-back world championships with Team USA in 2006 and 2010, in each case starting the gold-medal game. Her greatest international disappointment came during the 2008 Olympics, when the U.S. lost in a pitching duel against Japan in the gold-medal game.
Along with many stars of the era, she retired from international competition following the 2010 ISF World Championship in Venezuela and committed herself full-time to NPF, the four-team domestic professional league that plays a summer schedule. Prior to that, she won an NPF championship with the Rockford Thunder in 2009 and another with the Pride in 2010. She also competed professionally in Japan after leaving the national team.
Slowed at times in recent years by injuries, including surgery after the 2011 season to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome, she nonetheless remains one of the most dominant pitchers in the sport and arguably its biggest draw after Jennie Finch retired. Fully healthy last summer, she led NPF with a 0.71 ERA and finished second to Abbott in strikeouts.
Currently an assistant coach at Division II St. Edward's University in Austin, where her former college teammate Lindsay Gardner is the head coach, Osterman is unlikely to leave softball entirely behind.
"Even when you have tough days and you think you want to get away from the game, there's nothing I know as well as I know the game," Osterman said. "I really enjoy giving back, and seeing other athletes be able to fall in love with the game and get better with the game. I will always remain part of it. Coaching is probably going to be my extended future. I can't see myself giving that up. I'm very much still going to be a part of it.
"Even though I'm not playing, hopefully I can still be around the NPF and do some things to help the league and the sport grow."
This news wasn't entirely unexpected on my part, but it was still surprising to see it pop up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds today. After Jennie Finch, arguably the most recognizable softball player ever, retired a few years ago, Cat really became a face of the game. Not just for the NPF, but for the game of softball as a whole. Pitching for the USSSA Pride, widely considered the "Yankees" of the league, she had the exposure to go places, and go places she did. She expanded the public profile she already had, and not only used it to help advance professional softball, but also St. Edward's University when she decided to sign on as assistant coach at the Division II school.
Will I say I'm the biggest Cat Osterman fan that ever lived? Nope, I'll save that honor for someone who deserves it more than I. Even more than being a fan, though, I respect and admire her for her talent, her ability, her mentality, and so many other things.
The NPF will miss Cat Osterman, the pitcher, and rightfully so. She's had a lengthy and storied career in the league, as well as with Team USA, and will certainly be missed in the circle.
But softball fans, don't despair - Cat Osterman, the coach is still hanging around! She seems to be very happy in her position as St. Edward's assistant coach, and if you're in the Austin area, I highly suggest you catch a game when you're able.
Cat's got one final season to shine, and I have no doubt she will do so! If you'd like to extend your well-wishes to Cat, you can find her on Facebook here and Twitter @catosterman