Cat Osterman knows the game will go on. She is not afraid to hang up the cleats.
What she does worry about though, is the future of professional softball, about giving opportunities to up-and-coming talent, such as Texas All-America pitcher Miranda Elish, about leaving the world of pro softball better than it was when she began her career in 2006.
It is thanks to stars like Osterman that young softball players now have professionals to admire.
During her childhood, Osterman had no such opportunity. Instead, it was pro baseball players that she idolized. In fact, growing up in the Houston area, she dreamed of one day playing at Minute Maid Park for the Astros. That was until the day when she was told that dream was dead. Pro softball was in its infancy stages at that point, barely starting to get a following when the Women’s Pro Softball League (WPSL) was playing near her grandmother’s house in Florida. It was love at first sight. At the age of “14 or 15” she knew she wanted to be out on that field one day.
“I looked at my dad and was like, 'I want to do that someday,'" Osterman said Wednesday during the Athletes Unlimited Launch. "He looked at me like 'I don’t know if it is still going to be around, but we’ll see.'”
His doubt was unnecessary. As the years went by, women’s pro softball only gained more momentum, morphing from the WPSL to the National Pro Fastpitch League, to the sport being added to the Olympics in 2000.
“Thankfully, now young women have pro softball players to look up to because — same thing — I was following the Astros and loved Craig Biggio and wanted to be able to play professionally one day, and then again, we’re not playing baseball. We’re playing softball," Osterman said. "So what's that avenue?"
Less than six years after the star pitcher saw her first pro softball game, she was standing on the mound, facing Italy in the biggest game of her decorated career. The 2004 Olympics provided an opportunity to represent Team USA, and take her talent to new heights facing the best competition in the world.
That year also marked the halfway point of Osterman’s career on the Forty Acres, taking a redshirt for that season in order to train with the national team after having led the Longhorns to a 2003 Women’s College World Series appearance. Reaching the highest level of softball was one of many accomplishments garnered by Osterman during her college career. Her individual accolades speak for themselves: a career record of 136-25, an eye-popping 0.50 earned run average, four Big 12 Pitcher of the Year awards, 20 career NCAA no-hitters — the list goes on.
However, Osterman is more than just a star pitcher. What made her perhaps the greatest college softball pitcher in history was her ability to bring the team together and lead in a way that inspired the rest of the squad.
"I continue to be amazed at the awards and honors which Cat has received over the years, and each of them is extremely well-deserved, due to her work ethic and commitment to everything she does,” former Texas head coach Connie Clark said in 2006. “We are extremely proud what a tremendous role model Cat is — athletically, academically and with her volunteer work — for the younger athletes that she continues to inspire."
So when she was given the opportunity to help head up Athletes Unlimited, a new pro softball league, Osterman jumped at the opportunity, which also allowed her to train for the 2021 Olympics and bond with her Team USA teammates after the 2020 tour across the country to play exhibition games was cancelled due to Covid-19.
The name “Athletes Unlimited” is telling. For one, there are no team owners; the players basically run the league. In addition, the players are not limited to a specific team, and instead play for a new team each week. The league, founded by Jonathan Soros and Jon Patricof, puts a new twist on the sport, with athletes earning points for their performances in each game. Points are given in multiple statistical categories, from walks to stolen bases to putouts. At the end of each week, the top four point scorers become captains for the four teams and essentially “draft” their teams. This allows for a new emphasis to be put on individual performances.
But Osterman said she still believes the team camaraderie that is so evident across college softball, and even in the pro leagues, will not be lost with the new scoring system because points will also be given to each team for victories and innings.
“I don’t think so because there are benefits for the team winning the innings and winning the games as well, so while there is individual scoring there are benefits we get as a team in scoring, as well," she said. "I think while people will probably focus on what they did that day a little bit more, there’s still a lot that involves the team.”
Ultimately, Athletes Unlimited presents the greatest opportunity to showcase stars such as Osterman on a worldwide stage, putting their names up there with athletes like Mike Trout, Tom Brady, and others, who have developed followings around the world thanks to television and increased coverage. The organization already has signed a deal with CBS Sports and ESPN, and the first game will be broadcast Aug. 29 live from Rosemont, Illinois on ESPN. Covid-19 precautions still can be followed, as the league will play all six weeks of fast-paced action in Rosemont, keeping the athletes in a centralized place.
Osterman not only will be a leader behind the league, she will be a leader on the field. Considering there will be no coaches, and that Osterman is one of the older players at age 37, she will be the one the younger stars look up to, the one who keeps the team together. While she has said she plans to retire for the second time after the 2021 Olympics, Athletes Unlimited may lure her back on the field in the future. There is simply too much opportunity to turn down a chance to play the sport she loves, with such a large fanbase behind her.
“As much as I keep telling myself I’ll be done after the next Olympics, this is such an exciting endeavor that I keep telling myself if this pans out the way I feel like it is, it’ll be hard to not somehow be involved next year too,” Osterman said.
Athletes Unlimited may not have the grandeur of the Olympics, but it will be a key step in the growth of professional softball, and Osterman is more than ready to be a part of it, paving a way for the top talent coming up through the high school and college ranks to achieve a high level of notoriety and be able to play after their college careers are done.
The game will go on, and Osterman will be a part of it. After all, neither her talent nor her passion for the sport is in question.
“Why would I step away?,” she remembers thinking several years ago. “I love the game, I love pitching, I love the chess match of pitching — always have. If I can keep doing it, why not keep doing it?”