Commentary

Watley leaving a softball legacy

Updated: February 9, 2010, 4:05 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

She's 28 now, hardly close to being called old, and still can run the 60 feet between home plate and first base in 2.6 seconds. Maybe not on every day, but on enough days that the United States softball selection committee didn't have to think all that hard about naming her to its 2010 national team.

But Natasha Watley would be lying if she said she hadn't thought about retiring from the sport that has netted her two Olympic medals, an NCAA championship at UCLA and the 2003 Honda Broderick Award as the nation's top female athlete.

"I think about it all the time as I'm getting older," she said over brunch at a San Fernando Valley Coffee Bean.

"After 2008, when we knew it was the last time softball would be in the Olympics, it was really hard. It was like, 'OK, where can you really go with this anymore?'"

Many of her teammates simply left their shoes at home plate after the United States' final game at the Summer Games in Beijing and moved on with their lives.

Watley thought about it too, but deep down she felt she had more left to do.

"The more I thought about it, the more I realized I needed to keep playing," she said. "Softball isn't dying, it can still grow and it can still change lives.

"I think it's important that [U.S. national team stars] like Jennie [Finch] and Jessica Mendoza and myself stay out there. Yeah, we're still competing at the highest level and making sure we're representing the USA well, but our roles have changed.

"It's about keeping visibility out there, not letting the sport die and being leaders and role models."

[+] Enlarge Natasha Watley
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesNatasha Watley, a former UCLA standout, continues playing softball and helping others achieve their dreams despite the sport getting cut from the Olympics.

And so in the gloom of the first few months after the 2008 Summer Olympics, when the U.S. not only lost to Japan in the gold-medal game in Beijing in one of the more shocking upsets but also watched helplessly as the International Olympic Committee pulled the plug on the sport's future participation in the Olympics, Watley charted a new course for herself.

As much time as she put in at the batting cages she has spent working on her foundation, which aims to create opportunities for disadvantaged girls to learn and play softball.

As much time as she spent in the gym, she'd spend working with the young women she mentors in South Los Angeles through the softball program of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI).

And on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, she's hosting the inaugural fundraiser for the Natasha Watley Foundation, a 5K run and softball clinic at Balboa Park in Encino.

"For them, it's not even that I'm a softball player. ... It's just that I'm someone who looks like them to look up to," she says of her work with RBI.

"They don't always think they have a lot of options other than become a singer, be a model, be an actress even though there's so many more things they can do.

"I've done a lot of speaking at high schools, trying to get more girls into playing softball, and their biggest thing is always like, 'Man, if I were to play that, I'd get my hair messed up and my nails dirty, and no boys would like me.'

"That was never a thought I had growing up, but that's why I go out there."

Mendoza, the president of the Women's Sports Foundation, has known Watley since they were teenagers and has seen her growth and commitment firsthand to helping the next generation.

"I'm really proud of her," Mendoza said. "What Natasha is doing is great, not just for softball for these girls. Her mission is just to get these girls active and be a role model for them. It's got softball in it, but it's more than that. It's just about showing them why they need to get out of the house and start leading a healthy life."

Watley was raised in the Orange County suburb of Irvine and started playing softball in elementary school, because that's what girls in Orange County played.

When Watley was young, she never realized how few African-Americans rose to the highest levels of the sport, but her parents did.

"My dad always wanted me to play basketball growing up," Watley said. "My parents had Laker season tickets growing up; I used to go to the Forum every week.

"Softball just kind of fell into my lap. I think some girl in first grade handed me a flier and asked if I wanted to play. I was an only child, so I was like, 'Sure, why not?' And I just fell in love with it.

"I have no idea who that girl was, or what she's doing now, but 'Thank you.'''

When she got to UCLA and started collecting awards and All-American honors every year, then-Bruins coach Sue Enquist started talking to her about her unique opportunity as an African-American woman in softball to share her experiences with others and help grow the sport.

At first, Watley didn't understand exactly what Enquist was speaking of.

"Sue would always tell me, 'Tash, this [RBI] is going to be huge for you,'" Watley recalled. "But I was like, 'I didn't grow up there. I'm an only child; I got everything I wanted.

"Then I realized that's kind of the point. I got everything I wanted, I had parents that created opportunities for me, and these girls don't have that. That's when it clicked. They don't even know these opportunities are out there."

Over the years, Watley's work with RBI has increased. The group even renamed its annual softball league in her honor. She's hoping her foundation helps expand opportunities for the program.

"None of us are training for the 2012 Olympics any more. That's not an option," Mendoza said. "And we may not play as long as we would have because of that. But not having the Olympics has made it even more important for us to think of the legacy we want to leave in the sport.

"And you can really see Natasha doing that."

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

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