SOFTBALL: TOO SOON A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN MEMORIES

DAY 6: Hell hath no fury like …

BEIJING – The subject today is women, and the girls in pink are waiting.

They hover. They beckon. They call to you in clipped English, “Hello. …You like? … Come look.”

They are not hawking themselves. They are hawking everything else. Sunglasses, T-shirts, hard drives. This is at a place called Yashow Market, which is like a Persian bazaar, only not in Persia, and indoors. I am warned the girls (their shirts are pink) are not to be trifled with. Oh, they look sweet. They look cute. They look as if they are entering their junior year in high school.

But they are barracudas. At least that’s what I’m told. And you NEVER pay the price they ask. Only a fool does that.

“So how much do you take off?” I ask my young translator, Alex, who lives in China but was raised in Georgia – I call him my Beijing Bubba -“Ten percent? Twenty?”

“Go try,” he says.

I wander to an area where a girl in pink is selling men’s bathing trunks, typical, baggy California style. I grab one.

“How much?” I say.

She taps on a calculator and hands it over. It says 210 yuan, or about $30. To be honest, that’s a decent price in the States. I should be happy. But no high school junior is going to beat me.

“No, no, 150,” I say.

She shakes her head. “No, 180.”

“No, 150,” I repeat.

“No, 180.”

“I buy two for 160 each.”

She glares at me. “OK, OK.”

Ha! Got her! I strut back to where Alex is standing. I hold out my stash.

“Nothing to it. I knocked off 25%.”

He frowns. “We usually start at 80.” Here today, gone in 2012

Now, honestly, who takes 80% off anything? To start? I mean, do you name your price for everything in this country? Anyhow, a return to Yashow Market is on my must-do list – perhaps Thursday, when I pick up those suits I ordered – and next time, I’m bringing my smack talk.

But OK, the subject is women, so enough about the girls in pink. Let’s talk about the ladies in blue and white.

They are the women of the U.S. Olympic softball team, who began defending their gold medal Tuesday with a blowout victory against Venezuela. Now, I hear you say: “Come on, you’re not really writing about softball, are you?”

Well, yeah, because here’s the thing about this team. You remember the movie “A League of Their Own”? During World War II, a women’s baseball league is formed. And the women get good, and people jump on the bandwagon and everyone comes together – and then, bam! The war ends, the league is disbanded and they all have to go home.

That’s what’s happening with the U.S. softball squad – and the sport itself. This will be the last hurrah. Three years ago, for some unexplained reason, the International Olympic Committee voted softball and baseball out of the Summer Games. In a week or so, it’s all over. Take the bats and go home. The bottom of the ninth

So I went to the team’s news conference the other day. It was sort of depressing. A giant room, barely dotted with reporters. The women spoke earnestly about the blade hanging over their sport.

“I was driving to a workout and someone called me with the news,” said Jennie Finch, the popular cover girl pitcher. “I said no way. It’s a joke.”

“I was in Austin, hanging out with some baseball buddies,” said centerfielder Caitlin Lowe, “and it came across the ESPN ticker. We had no idea it was even being voted on. My friends joked that I had to retire.

“Once we realized it was a final decision, it wasn’t as funny.”

No sport had been voted out of the Olympics in nearly 70 years. And baseball and softball were only put in back in 1992 and 1996, respectively. So why are they gone?

Take a guess.

Baseball, a largely American endeavor, has made headlines lately for what? Steroids. Like they need more of that in the Olympics. Besides, the major leaguers don’t play, so it’s not as if the best in the world are really involved.

As for softball? Well, the U.S. women have won all three Olympic gold medals – and the last six world championships. And while other nations are improving, the United States is heavily favored again this year. And remember, the IOC is heavily European.

You do the math.

The IOC doesn’t like American domination. It never has. Rarely can it do anything about it. But here was a chance. Softball, YOUUUU’RE OUT!

“Who knows what the reasons were?” said catcher Lauren Lappin, who knew full well but was being politically correct. “We are doing what we can to get it back.”

Hey, listen. If they’re looking for sports to trim, they always could lose the ribbon twirling, overly theatrical rhythmic gymnastics competition, which totally has been dominated by Russians and ex-Russians since 1988.

But no, that stays. And softball has to go. It was touching and sad to watch these women, who have never had a hint of scandal, who have been great ambassadors for their game, promise to take the sport to other countries, teach more, if only the IOC would reinstate softball for 2016.

“In America, girls are gonna play softball for the love of the sport,” said outfielder Jessica Mendoza, “but globally opportunities are created because the government funds Olympic sports. Otherwise, the support isn’t there. I’m afraid if we go away, even for eight years, the governments will turn their backs on it.”

But that is likely to happen. If so, softball will be this mirage that rose from the dirt for 12 years, then vanished into the Olympic air.

“We’re willing to do anything and everything to get it back,” Finch said. “This has been our lives, our passion. We have experienced things that young girls dream about. And we want to continue that dream for other young girls.”

Someone asked Finch, given all this, if she would be relieved if the other countries did better against the United States this year, just to make the competition seem closer. She nodded as the question was being asked, then answered this way:

“Absolutely not. We’re athletes.”

And they deserve to stay that way. It’s funny, you can name your price many places in China, but not on the softball diamond. I watched those American women leave the room trying to keep their chins up, promising to show the IOC how great their game can be. And it’s hard to tell who is tougher: these ballplayers or the barracudas back in Yashow Market.

I know this much: The girls in pink have job security, and the ladies in blue and white do not. Go figure.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Missed a day of Olympic columns? Go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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