Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
Crowning GOATs is a fixation of contemporary sports media and fans, and is a chronically ahistorical process — that said, Cat Osterman has as solid a claim to the title of the GOAT of softball as anyone. Osterman is among the most dominant pitchers ever, a Texas legend with numerous NCAA records still in her name over a decade after she graduated, an Olympic gold and silver medalist and a fixture of the highest tiers of American professional softball up until this Monday, when she played her final game with Athletes Unlimited at age 38. Watch her pitch an absolutely nutty 18 strikeouts in the 2006 Women’s College World Series for a tiny taste of what she’s accomplished. It’s an incredible run that may never get its due because of which sport Osterman has dedicated her life to — and a few days after she ended her playing career (with a win, it should be noted), Osterman was generous enough to speak with us about what it all means.
— Athletes Unlimited (@AUProSports) September 28, 2021
How are you feeling in the wake of your final game?
I hate to say I feel better, but I am very satisfied with the decision. Last time that I decided to stop playing was in 2015 and when I came home, I almost felt a sense of depression. There was a sadness that loomed over me for a couple days, just because the game had been such an integral part of my life. This time, I kind of expected that again. But to be honest, I woke up Tuesday morning, hit the road with my mom, and even just having conversations with her I was very okay with it. It made me realize that unretiring was the right decision, because last time — even though I was very much set that it was time to retire — that feeling of sadness, and just not being able to fully be okay with it in the moment, showed that there was something left.
There’s a little bit of a weight lifted off in the fact that my priority doesn’t have to be trying to stay in shape and stay at an elite level of pitching in order to be ready for whatever is coming my way. I’m really excited to be able to turn the page and not even go into coaching, just something completely different. That excites me.
When was the first moment that you felt like, “Oh, I’m actually really good at this” —where you sort of had some sense of your ceiling as a player?
I didn’t know the extent of my talent until I was probably 15. I was average growing up — a little bit above average at like, 14 — but it’s not like I was throwing no hitters left and right, and my teams were constantly winning big tournaments. The first travel ball team I ever played for, the Cy-Fair Slammers, went to ASA nationals when I was 15. There were a lot of assistant coaches from colleges at that tournament, and seeing them at our games throughout the weekend and talking to my coaches kind of alerted me to the fact that what I was doing something different. Obviously, if I was piquing their interest to watch, then I knew I had some type of talent and the dream of college softball that I had could actually come true.
The moment that I realized I could go beyond college was the summer of 2000, when I played against the [U.S.] national team. We got to play against them on their Central Park To Sydney tour, and I pitched five innings with one hit and 11 strikeouts. That was the point where I realized, “Okay, if you keep working at this, you have a shot at the national team.” Obviously with professional softball being kind of rebranded after that, that also became a goal.
How has your career compared to even what you had aspired to at that point?
If you had told 11 year old me when I started pitching that that’s how my career was going to unfold, I would have probably laughed and told you, “You’re crazy.” If you had told high school me that that’s the path it would have taken, I still wouldn’t have believed it. I put in the work, but I don’t think I ever truly thought that I would have kept playing for as long as I did. But at the same time, I look back at it, and the biggest thing is, it was all worth it. Every sacrifice I’ve made along the way, all the hours that I put in — my mom and I were talking about it, and from the time I graduated high school until after 2008, there was no break from softball, to be honest. Three days after high school graduation, I went to national team tryouts. I made the team and happened to go straight on the road for six weeks. So I didn’t even go home in between those, then I joined my travel team, played nationals there, then I went and played with the Brakettes for women’s majors. Even college, like fall ball, spring ball, national team; fall ball, spring ball, national team — for five years there. I look back at it, like, “How did I manage that?”
But at the same time, I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any other way. It truly allowed me to be immersed in this game and continue to work at my craft. I’ve said quite often that I fell in love with the art of pitching. I mean, the game of softball is great, don’t get me wrong. But what truly captured my heart was the art of pitching. Playing for as long as they did allowed me to continue to chase perfection that’s not possible — but it was fun to try to get as close as possible to it.
How do you feel like softball pitching has changed over the course of your career?
I think there’s a cycle. Sometimes you’ll see a plethora of rise ball pitchers, and then a couple years later, we have drop ball pitchers, and it goes up and down.
The craze lately has been you have to throw hard — and I’m trying to get people to understand, “No, no — you don’t.” That was the cool part of Athletes Unlimited. There are all these people who want to throw 65-plus, or 70 and beyond. Don’t get me wrong: If you can do that, that’s an incredible feat. But you still have to be able to do that, hit your spot and move the ball. Not everybody can do all those things at that speed. So it was fun to see, you know, when I hit 62 or 63 on the scoreboard, and people are seeing other hitters swing and miss, it’s just showing that you don’t have to be a cookie cutter pitcher with this kind of speed, or this kind of build.
Has changed a little bit? Yes, but if you do it correctly, the foundation and the art of it are still similar. It’s just all about being patient, and learning things to their fullest and not trying to do everything all at once — which unfortunately, I think with the addition of all the technology we have and social media, everyone wants instant gratification and you don’t get that with the art of pitching. That’s the fun part of it: the journey of seeing yourself slowly progress, and then once it clicks and you see it successful on the field, you’re like, “Okay, that was worth it.”
I know you’ve worked as a coach, but as somebody who’s been playing at such a high level for such a long time, what do you think is the most important thing for softball coaches to emphasize to really talented young players like you were?
I think we try to do too many fancy things. And it’s like, just do simple well, and then add on to that. Especially with pitching I see kids saying, “Oh, I throw a drop, a curve, a rise, a drop curve, a rising screwball…” And it’s like, “Okay, no. Let’s learn how to throw a drop inside and out. And then, maybe, after we’ve mastered that, we could put a little tail on it. We don’t have to call it a drop curve and try to learn a brand new pitch, we can manipulate the way our fingers are or something like that.” But we’re just trying to complicate things and it’s like, do simple really well. And then buy into the fact that you can control your parts of the game and let the game unfold. But I think that’s probably, in my mind, what I did was pitching. I won’t ever say I have a drop curve, but if you go watch a game, will you see, occasionally, a drop tail like it might have some curve? Sure. Will you maybe see it drift out like it was screwball-ish? Sure, but I don’t say I have two additional pitches. I just had learned how to master a drop, and then played with being able to do other things with it. Doing the basics well, it pays off.
What did Athletes Unlimited offer you in the final stages of your career?
Athletes Unlimited gave us a professional environment — in ’20 and ’21, the NPF didn’t have a season because of COVID-19, and with the Olympic delay, all of us needed to be able to play. We were all, I think, a little hesitant just because it sounded….in most people’s minds, true professional sports is where you’re on a team and those teams are competing for championships. But at the same time, once we got there, we all realized it’s still very much team-oriented because you get most of your points with team wins and inning wins. You figure out how to be successful in different environments, on different teams, in different roles. It just became such a place where all of us could grow athletically, and just as people. You’re around 56 to 60 other athletes who are truly passionate about seeing this go, not just the 15 to 18 who happen to be on your team. If COVID and the delay hadn’t happened, I would have retired and not been part of it at all. But it truly was an impactful environment to be in, and I’m so grateful for it.
How do you see professional softball continuing to evolve in the future?
Obviously professional softball has gone up and down. It’s a sport that deserves a professional platform and I know Athletes Unlimited was supposed to be an additional opportunity — not the only opportunity — because when they started developing the concept they were working with the NPF.
It would be great if professional softball could somehow be able to sustain itself, but at the same time, at some point we need to push the envelope and instead of just being glad we have professional softball, we need to allow these athletes to be professionals. By that, I mean not necessarily million dollar contracts coming right out, but more than $8,000. No athlete can live on that for the year. Let’s allow these athletes to be professional athletes, and not have to go make ends meet. So that way, when they do get to their pro season, they’re primed and ready to go because they haven’t had to focus on other things that are going to pay the bills.
I think that’s the next biggest step. I love that there is going to hopefully be a another professional platform starting next summer, but let’s allow these athletes to truly be professionals and not a professional athlete for three months out of the year and then have to figure out how to pay the bills after that.
As somebody who did balance playing professionally with having to just be a person in the world and survive, how did you do that? Do you feel like people take for granted how you’ve been able to make it work over the years?
I’ve benefited from the fact that my dream job was always college coaching. I did that for 12 years, and I think there’s a lot of people that don’t realize I’ve been doing it since 2008. There were a couple years I took off in the middle here and there, but being able to college coach I’m allowed access to a weight room, I can use our athletic trainers —there were a lot of things that I had access to. I won’t deny, too, that that was part of what kept me in coaching, and I never really truly thought about doing anything else because if I was going to keep playing, I needed access to all of this kind of stuff.
I’ve benefited, but at the same time, not everyone wants to be a coach. If you don’t want to have that on your plate as well, or you don’t get a boss that’s as understanding of what you need to put in in order to stay at your level, it becomes a little bit difficult. I think a lot of people don’t realize that the common professional softball player is fitting in her training around what’s paying the bills versus her training being a priority and her doing other things for extra money because she can. It’s a grind, and sometimes emotionally and mentally it’ll take its toll because you just feel so spread thin. But a lot of us have just realized that’s what it takes, and so if that’s what it takes, we’re gonna keep doing it.
What surprises you about this current generation of softball players and the next generation? How have things changed since you were coming up?
I think the cool thing about this generation is that they just truly enjoy playing the game. Not that generations in the past didn’t, but I think we were just a little more hard-nosed, just do the grind, play and kind of enjoy the results after the fact. But this generation truly shows that they’re enjoying things. That was the cool part for me in unretiring, being able to play with this generation and I think people saw it even on my face — like, me smiling and just truly enjoying moments versus it being work. I enjoyed it even when I didn’t have an environment that I smiled in all the time, but this time people got to actually see a different side of me — not just serious Cat all the time. The generations before inspired these athletes to play, and now these athletes are playing and showing so much joy with it that hopefully the next generation runs with that as well.
What’s next for you?
So I have, technically, two jobs. I am the director of pitching performance for the Bombers Fastpitch organization, which is headquartered here in New Braunfels[, Texas], where I live. I work with their pitchers putting together different programs for organizational workouts, along with helping coaches figure out how to best call pitches for their pitchers, how best to develop their pitchers and things like that. Also helping coach their 18-and-under team, so I’ll start coaching again here in the next couple weeks. Then my job-job, I’m going to work for RBI Austin, which is the cause that I played for with Athletes Unlimited. I am our Director of Softball; we have a very advanced baseball side, and so I’m going to come in and develop our softball side. Hopefully, we offer more than just kind of rec league-level softball to the underserved community — allowing those girls a chance to come in and hopefully develop to the point that one day, we have some athletes playing in college. And no matter what level, just helping them enhance their talents and hopefully inspire some dreams that probably weren’t there to begin with. I’m really excited about that, because I’ve been on the board of RBI Austin for the last six or seven years. Now I get to go be hands on and dive headfirst into designing a player academy, and just figuring out how to best serve the girls that are in our organization.
What do you love about softball?
I think the biggest thing that I love about our sport is that you don’t have to be one type of athlete in order to be successful at it. There’s plenty of pitchers who probably didn’t play other sports, but they were introduced to pitching and they were really good at that, so they can play. You may have your center fielders, who are fast and also run track and do other things, but they have a place on the softball field. You can be a big power hitter, and you have a place on the softball field. You don’t have to be good at one thing in order to be successful in softball. I like to share the fact that you can pull in a group of 20 girls, and you could probably find a way that all 20 could be successful at at some skill on the softball field whether they’re fast or not, whether they’re strong or not, you can figure out a way for them to enjoy the game.