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The Road Less Traveled

Monica Abbott Photo by Dina Kwit Courtesy of National Pro Fastpitch

 

Written by Barb Jordan


NASHVILLE, TN (June 10, 2016) - Monica Abbott travels well.  And although she has often exhibited an easy willingness for adventure, the route she opts for, will likely stray from the beaten path. If there is a road less traveled, look for her to be on it.   Abbott is a player who has always done things her way.  That’s not a bad thing.   She just doesn’t mind the extra effort required in blazing her own trail, a mindset that has forged the way for others to follow.  


This week Monica Abbott uncovers yet another new trail and a new chapter in her life, playing for the Scrap Yard Dawgs, the newest team in the National Pro Fastpitch league.  Just how does a first year team acquire a player with such influence on a softball game?   Well, a million dollars of course. Abbott’s six year one million dollar contract is the largest competition contract ever signed by a female professional athlete.  Her million dollar contract was one of the biggest news stories in the history of women’s sports.


Jaw dropping power pitchers, although not prevalent, have existed throughout the history of softball.  Abbott is among them.   She is, without question, one of the best pitchers to ever play the game.  She is a left hander with a signature rise ball that has frustrated the game’s best hitters on a swing and miss.    There have been other dominant power pitchers over the years.  They include the legends of Joan Joyce with a lifetime ERA of 0.09 and Bertha Tickey, with her 42 perfect games and 162 no-hitters. They also include the more recent standout Olympians of  Michelle Granger, Lisa Fernandez and Lori Harrigan.  It’s tough company, but Monica Abbott has dominant statistics at every level of softball that support her inclusion.


The first time the country noticed Abbott’s  propensity for the road less traveled was in high school where she was a phenom pitcher.  Back then, the Pac-10 was dominating the  Women’s College World Series  Championships, winning fifteen out of the last twenty from 1983- 2002.  The announcement of Abbott committing to a powerful and successful Pac-10 university seemed obvious and imminent. However, Abbott saw a different route to the WCWS, a route she believed would begin thousands of miles away from her home town of Salinas, California, a route that would begin in a small but fervent college town in Knoxville, Tennessee, that was best known for its women’s basketball.  The school was the University of Tennessee and at that time they had never qualified for the Women’s College World Series. 


In the ensuing years following Abbott’s commitment to Tennessee, additional California players would similarly commit, with the rationale that Abbott would ultimately lead the flock to a national title.


The Abbott influence on the Tennessee Lady Vols softball program was swift. Almost overnight, the team gained national recognition. Poll rankings soared to top 25 and beyond - a location where they have consistently remained for over a decade. Prior to Abbott’s arrival, the Lady Vols were a team fighting to find an identity in the growing Southeastern Conference, and had only qualified for the NCAA Tournament one time in seven years of existence.  In only her second season on Rocky Top,  Abbott not only helped secure an NCAA Tournament bid, but began a back to back to back streak of appearances in the Women’s College World Series that would end with a runner-up finish for Abbott and her teammates in 2007.


To say Monica Abbott left her mark on the collegiate game is an understatement.  Although she did not win the National Championship, she did rewrite the record books in the category of pitching.  Nearly a decade after she exited Knoxville for good, Abbott still holds numerous NCAA career records including 2,440 strikeouts, 112 shut-outs, and 189 wins.  In each of her four seasons as a Lady Vol, she had over 500 strikeouts and in one of those seasons she racked 724.  Her career ERA is a minuscule 0.79.   She recorded 6 perfect games.


Along the way Abbott paid attention to details.   From the World Series appearances, she learned more than just the athletics side of the process.  She observed the business side, seeing what Women’s College World Series participation did for the University of Tennessee.  She watched the university and the softball program benefit from the marketing and media promotions that accompany national television coverage.   She saw examples of people building success and creating opportunities of popularity and revenue.


Following the close of Abbott’s collegiate career in 2007, a first year Washington Glory, playing in the National Pro Fastpitch league contracted Monica as a professional player.  Unafraid of new territory, Abbott wasted no time making her mark in the four year old league.  She led the Glory to the league’s tournament title, Cowles Cup, and was named the Championship Series Most Valuable Player.


A year later, in 2008, Abbott was the youngest pitcher, on the United States Olympic Team. During a six month Olympic tour, Abbott watched as popular Team USA players had opportunities to market themselves.  Through the examples of pitching greats Lisa Fernandez and Jennie Finch, she observed women who were not afraid to negotiate their value and be compensated for their worth.


While she waited for her turn in the circle behind veterans, Finch and Cat Osterman, she honed her pitching skills.  In the preliminary round of Olympic competition in Beijing, China, Abbott employed those skills and stunned the Netherlands, twirling a 5 inning perfect game - the only perfect game in United States Olympic softball history.


In 2009, Abbott’s uncharted path stretched over 10,000 miles from her Salinas Valley home, when she signed a professional contract to play for Team Toyota in the Japan Women’s Softball League.  Since league rules only allow two foreign players on each of the twelve team rosters, Abbott joined a core of less than a dozen Americans competing throughout Japan. True to form and in line with history, Abbott again made her mark, leading Team Toyota to four JSL Championships including 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. Impressively, in the back to back to back run, Abbott was also the JSL Most Valuable Player.


Over the next three seasons of National Pro Fastpitch competition, Abbott would land in a new market with a new team every year. 2009 began with USSSA Pride, the newest franchise of the league, and an ownership group who had inherited the defending champion Glory’s roster, after an ownership upheaval of the Washington D.C. based squad.


Twelve months later Abbott found herself back in the volunteer state in a trade between newly added Tennessee Diamonds and the USSSA Pride. Following one season for the Diamonds, Abbott landed in Rosemont, IL on the league’s most successful roster to date, the Chicago Bandits. 
Abbott settled into Chicago and in her rookie season led the Bandits to a Cowles Cup title, defeating her former USSSA Pride team in the Final Series.  Finally, after three seasons of fresh paths, Abbott felt she had found a home in the Chicago suburbs. She thought she would retire a Bandit.  She was comfortable on and off the field, and in 2015; the Bandits had a magical year infused with team chemistry as they marched to another Cowles Cup Championship. Abbott was 2-0 in the Final Series against USSSA Pride with an ERA of 0.00. For her efforts on the season, she was named NPF Pitcher of the Year.


As fate would have it, within a year of that magical season in Chicago, another untraveled road beckoned.  This time it would not only be about a new team, a new town and new teammates. This route would transcend the sport of softball to encompass a breakthrough in female athletics in general.


 National Pro Fastpitch’s newest franchise, Scrap Yard Dawgs, approached Abbott while she waited in a limbo state of contract negotiation with the Chicago Bandits.  The Dawgs had interest and enthusiasm that was presented to Abbott in the form of a text message from the no-nonsense General Manager of the Dawgs, Connie May.   It read, “Nolan Ryan was the first million dollar contract in baseball… His contract created opportunities for other players after him… his contract took MLB to another level. Professional softball is ready, they have a TV deal, and a game of the week but there is a salary gap.  Now is the time and there is a female athlete worth this money.  The only question is, who will that player be?”
There it was - shocking but simply stated. Monica Abbott realized it was her. She would be the one to become the first professional female athlete in the United States to sign a million dollar contract. It is a contract that many hope will be a turning point for all female athletes - a game changer, just like the athlete whose signature it bears.


Monica Abbott is a woman with a purpose. Today, Monica Abbott begins another chapter in her life, with new goals, on a new team, in another state, and on  a road less traveled.


Abbott has seen the NPF grow in ranks and in strength. She has seen it go from no television coverage to a current 25 game package with CBS Sports Network. She has seen the league launch NPFTV, a proprietary digital platform where every game of the season can be watched by fans live or on-demand.  Abbott believes the NPF is at its tipping point.  She believes corporate America should take notice and secure their place as an NPF partner as the league poises to become a legitimate professional sports option for women.


Perhaps corporate America should take a page from Abbott’s book and realize that there is success and value in a road less traveled.