NEW YORK -- Ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Visiting Major League Baseball’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan. Taking a VIP tour atop the Empire State Building.
Any one of those activities would be a day to remember. All of them make up a day that will last forever.
That was the sentiment expressed by the U.S. Women’s National Softball Team on Friday during an NYC promotional tour to support Thursday’s D.C. announcement of the “Stand Beside Her” training tour across America in preparation for this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. Sponsored by MLB, the 35-city slate from February through June will provide a platform for the team to showcase its athletic abilities while also inspiring a younger generation that looks up to the players as star female athletes.
“It’s an honor to represent USA Softball and represent our country, but more importantly to represent the individuals that make this country run,” said pitcher Monica Abbott, one of the two prior Olympians on the 15-player 2020 roster -- softball and baseball haven’t been included in the Olympic Games since 2008. “It does not hold light on our hearts as athletes that in order to do what we do on the field we need the support of an entire country. It takes finances to do that, it takes support, it takes energy. And having partnerships and excitement around softball changes the game not only for us, but it changes the momentum that we have in our country to make a real change in the world.”
Since 2015, USA Softball (the sport’s national governing body) has worked with MLB on several grassroots initiatives -- such as Play Ball and the Breakthrough Series -- to help grow the popularity of the game, especially among those from underrepresented backgrounds. Members of the team have volunteered their time to run clinics to teach girls and boys the fundamentals of both sports.
In recent years, the two started the Elite Development Invitational, a weeklong camp that offers specialized coaching instruction to aspiring college and professional softball players at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla., which is operated by MLB as a hub for a wide array of youth and amateur baseball and softball programs. As part of the “Stand Beside Her” tour, the complex will become the official training facility of all USA Softball national teams.
“It’s truly a win-win for us,” said USA Softball CEO Craig Cress. “The goal of our organization is to have as many kids as possible -- male and female, because we do have males that are playing the game -- playing the sport of softball. And I know the Commissioner’s Office here, they want to build fans for the future. We want our former players and our current players to be fans of both baseball and softball, so the partnership has grown out of that. It’s been really great from our perspective ... and I hope and I truly believe that MLB feels the same way.”
Friday, the next stage of that partnership came to fruition in the Big Apple. The team partook in one of the more sacred traditions the country has to offer, ringing the opening bell on the trading floor of the NYSE to signal the start of activity across the global marketplace. With chants of “U-S-A” echoing around the trading floor, the team stood on a platform high above the room and Abbott sounded the iconic bell, eliciting rousing applause from the traders at their stations.
Betty Liu, NYSE executive vice chairman, told the team that as “the best of the best in athletics” they were following in the footsteps of past luminaries like Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Warren Buffett in the NYSE’s hallowed halls, and she presented them with a special memento to commemorate the occasion -- a coin with the NYSE façade on the front and an etching of the famous Wall Street buttonwood tree on the back. In 1792, 24 stockbrokers stood underneath that tree and signed the agreement that established rules for trading that still form the basis of the capital markets today.
The team then headed to MLB’s newly minted offices for a meet-and-greet with company employees, and in the spirit of the full NYC experience, they took the subway, even running across the platform to catch a connecting train in true New York fashion. But before signing posters and pamphlets for enthusiastic corporate staffers taking a break from their workday, the team participated in a career-development panel with some of MLB’s top female executives, including senior vice president for baseball operations Kim Ng.
For many of the players, that proved to be the highlight of the day, because it demonstrated how MLB’s commitment isn’t limited to their time on the field.
“They’re not only supporting us for our tour; they’re supporting our whole careers,” outfielder Michelle Moultrie said. “They want us to have resources and contacts after we’re done playing, and we can really see how deep the support is for the women here.”
Within the cultural context of women’s sports still struggling to gain as much attention as men’s sports, the team emphasized how important it is to make an investment in female athletes. Outfielder Janie Reed spoke about how MLB’s financial backing will allow the team to hire additional support staff, specifically naming Jade Hewitt -- USA Softball’s head of digital media for the “Stand Beside Her” tour -- as an important asset for what they are trying to accomplish.
“[She] is going to be able to capture [it] through photography, videography and be able to tell a story,” Reed said. “Because yes, we’re going to get to tour the country and hopefully a lot of girls and families are going to get to come watch us play, but for those that aren’t able to, they’ll still get to see what we’re doing on the tour through media.”
That type of media exposure isn’t always granted to female athletes, something the team hopes it can begin to change. Throughout the day, some of the players also made appearances at NBC Sports and MLB Network for a variety of digital, social and TV interviews.
“Because softball has been in and out of the Olympics, we haven’t gotten the most media coverage in the last 10 years,” Reed said. “So to go from maybe not even your local news station reaching out for interviews to come to the media capital of the world ... it’s starting to become real. Because for so long, we just put our head down, go to work and not really care -- ‘So what if people aren’t wanting to put our faces on TV? We’re gonna work hard and we’re gonna win, and that’s what our focus is going to be.’
“[Now] it starts to feel real -- ‘Oh wow, we’re going to the Olympics, we’re going to the Games, and we’re going to be playing in front of the world.’”
Fittingly, the final stop of the day took the team to another national landmark, where the players could really visualize just how big of a moment they are embarking on. Standing on the 86th-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, with a wide-open view of New York City in their sights, they took a moment to reflect on how the “Stand Beside Her” tour could be the start of something special, on a scale larger than they might have ever imagined.
“It was cool to meet everyone and hear how genuinely, literally from the bottom of their hearts, that they are supporting us and backing us and really standing beside her,” said outfielder Haylie McCleney. “I think they are just completely bought in to the entire theme of our tour, and it was really, really special and kind of mind-blowing for us to see that. Because we all grew up big baseball fans too -- it was insane, it was awesome.”
Betelhem Ashame is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.