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The Ace Who Wouldn’t Stop Finally Steps Away

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Retiring may be the most surprising thing Monica Abbott ever did. 

The world championships and professional titles across multiple continents. The tangible records and intangible dominance. You knew all of those were within her grasp the first time you saw those long limbs uncoil, seemingly reaching out to close enough brush the batter. You knew the first time you saw a batter swing helplessly at a ball that wasn’t there anymore, the way most of the rest us swat at flies on summer afternoons. 

Not that success was guaranteed, of course. It never is. Still, it seemed inevitable she would figure it out in ways few ever had. 

The only thing that was impossible to imagine, as she pitched on and on with timeless excellence, is that she would ever stop. 

Like Serena or Brady, she simply kept going. Except that unlike them, she never knew for certain that the sport would come with her. The Olympics came and went, then came and went again. A professional league born when she was in college folded before she retired. For all intents and purposes, so did the franchise that made her softball’s first million-dollar arm. 

So even as the collegiate game boomed at home, she did much of her best work several thousand miles away in Japan. Year after year she went. Hardly an onerous exile—she seemed to grow to love what amounted to a second home. But a sort of sporting exile nonetheless. 

It’s that sheer dogged determination to be excellent, somewhere, anywhere, that stands out. 

You can write a version of Abbott’s story in which she is unlucky. 

As much as any individual player, she made it possible for the SEC to thrive—just not in time for her to win a title at Tennessee. 

She played in two Olympics—on either side of the absolute prime of her career. 

She dominated a domestic professional league—a few years too soon for the kind of investment only now gradually shifting toward women’s sports. 

But she never let the negative define the story. She just kept pitching and pitching, striking out batter after batter, until none of that mattered as much as two decades of excellence. 

She was uniquely excellent during a unique time. The first of the SEC superstars and the last of the old-school aces. The tail end of a generation expected to be thankful for whatever crumbs were thrown their way and the vanguard of a generation with the tools to demand better. 

There was no one like her as a pitcher. And no one lived quite her softball life. 

(Photo courtesy Jade Hewitt)

When Abbott debuted at Tennessee in 2004, Pat Summitt having helped Ralph and Karen Weekly convince the Californian to come to Knoxville, SEC teams not named South Carolina had just three Women’s College World Series appearances. Which is to say, as many World Series appearances as the long-defunct John F. Kennedy College. And with three fewer titles. 

Even with the outlier of South Carolina’s success in the AIAW and early NCAA years, the conference was an outsider. Many schools had sponsored the sport for less than a decade, swept up in the women’s sports wave that followed the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. 

The pristine stadiums that are the bare minimum for entry in the conference these days? Not a chance. Alabama’s Rhoads Stadium was a few years old, but most of the conference had the same experience as Abbott. While Summitt’s Lady Vols packed Thompson-Boling Arena to the rafters, the softball team played at Tyson Park, a municipal field where you might fit a thousand people if they cared to show up—but only a few dozen would get to sit in the rickety wooden bleachers. 

Last year, Tennessee drew nearly 5,000 fans to Sherri Parker Lee Stadium during its super regional against Oregon State. Abbott’s freshman year, just over 6,000 fans found their way to the park beneath an elevated section of interstate during the entire season. And in the days when the World Series offered just about the only games you were likely to find on television, and streaming was haphazard at best, it wasn’t like people were tuning in from afar. 

It was their loss. 

Even for those who lived through them, the numbers barely make sense. It’s like a baseball fan looking back to Pud Galvin and Old Hoss Radbourn, except this wasn’t a different century. Just a different decade. Abbott went 45-10 as a freshman. She pitched 44 complete games, striking out 582 batters in 352 innings. 

And she was just getting started. She won 50 games in a season twice, half of the instances in which that happened in Division I history. She made at least 62 appearances on three occasions, again half of the six highest single-season totals in Division I history. Her lowest single-season strikeout total is still good for the 12th-best in Division I history. And her single-season record of 724 strikeouts in 2007 is as safe as any record in the sport. 

Again, there is the hint of something star-crossed in the fact that it took the single-greatest feat of individual endurance in World Series history to deny her an NCAA title, when Arizona’s Taryne Mowatt threw more than a thousand pitches and outlasted the ironwoman in 2007. 

Yet by the time Abbott left Knoxville, not only were the Lady Vols familiar in Oklahoma City—a label they have more or less held onto, despite a current eight-year absence—but so were Alabama, LSU and Florida, with Georgia soon to follow. 

These days, it’s not inconceivable to imagine basketball coach Kellie Harper turning to Kiki Milloy to help land a big recruit from the West Coast. 

That isn’t all Abbott’s doing, not even in Knoxville, but they are far more than parallel narratives. In telling the modern history of the college game, you could do worse than open with her arrival. 

Something similar may one day hold true for professional softball.

After the 2008 Olympics, when the then-23-year-old Abbott earned a win in the now-forgotten semifinal against Yukiko Ueno and Japan by going eight innings without allowing an earned run, and the 2010 World Championships, when she closed out the gold medal win, international softball slipped from view. But even as she stepped away from Team USA, along with most of the core of the last Olympic team, she kept pitching—and would keep pitching for 12 more summers. 

However many people knew the league existed, she made NPF compelling for most of the decade, allowing the Chicago Bandits to bolster their scrappy persona with arguably the best pitcher in the world (and in those years, there was rarely much of an argument) to take on the star-laden USSSA Pride. Her ability to play alongside the best in the world and still be so clearly better than her peers, like Serena Williams or Mikaela Shiffrin, lent her the gravitas that made a million-dollar contract from the ScrapYard Dawgs seem viable. And then she led them to a title.

It wasn’t her doing that the organization, after leaving NPF, eventually fell apart following a walk-out after management appropriated player voices in the fraught summer of 2020. It wasn’t her fault that NPF was perpetually plagued by internal conflict, bickering and shaky finances. 

She just kept pitching, as if she could will professional softball in this country to the same sort of sustainability she found in winning MVPs and leading Toyota to championships in Japan. 

In 2012, the Bandits and Pride met for the title, as usual. The title series eventually ended in farce, the championship abandoned when a rain out revealed the league had no contingency plan. But before that moment that encapsulated so much about the league, the two teams played the sort of softball that made diehard fans adore NPF for all its flaws. No games on the planet, including the Olympics, featured a greater concentration of talent. 

Abbott shut down a lineup of Hall of Famers in the opening game, beating Cat Osterman in the process. And the Pride’s Jessica Mendoza, Abbott’s former Olympic teammate, succinctly summed up the pitcher’s place of primacy in the sport. 

“When I’m facing a pitcher in the offseason, when I’m taking batting practice in January,” Mendoza said, “It’s [mentally] against Monica Abbott.”

She was the standard. She remained the standard. She may well always be the standard. 

That’s what she decided her story should be. And she didn’t stop until it was.