It’s new. It’s different. It’s a little odd. It’s also the best chance for professional softball’s survival.
Athletes Unlimited officially kicked off on Saturday afternoon, with a pair of games that were each televised on ESPNU. Jessica Warren’s orange team and Haylie Wagner’s gold squad bested Sami Fagan’s purple and Nicole Pendley’s blue units, respectively.
The teams each bore the monikers of their respective team captains, one of many aspects of Athletes Unlimited that are unique to the new league. The league’s point system also is uniquely designed, but showed on Saturday that it still has some issues that will have to be ironed out.
Base hits – singles, doubles, triples, and home runs – earn points for each individual player that records them. A single earns 10 points, with each extra-base hit worth an additional 10 points on a sliding scale, up to home runs that are worth 40. Player achievements are the name of the AU game; final scores don’t matter, although more points are awarded to members of a winning team. In addition to base hits, walks earned and stolen bases can also gain points for a player, though being caught trying to steal a base will see points taken away.
Pitchers earn points for each out they record, and lose points for giving up earned runs.
Offense was the tale of the tape on Saturday, with 36 runs scored between the four teams. Team Wagner scored eighteen runs all in their own right, with eight players recording at least one RBI for the gold squad. Jazmyn Jackson, Lilli Piper, Samantha Show, and Megan Wiggins all registered multi-RBI performances.
Show and Jackson each finished a triple away from hitting for the cycle. Jackson hit the first grand slam of the league’s young existence, while Show was the only player on any of the four teams to record four hits on opening day. Analyst Danielle Lawrie said it best on the television broadcast. Following Show’s fourth hit, a home run to left-center, Lawrie offered a simple exclamation: “Holy Show!”
The best pitching performance belonged to Cat Osterman, who threw the first pitch in league history and earned the win in the circle for Team Warren. Osterman threw five innings of shutout ball, with eight strikeouts to her credit.
While Athletes Unlimited still has some clear kinks that need to be worked out – a simple explanation of the complex scoring system and improvements to the overly-casual presentation of the league top the list – there is promise for what the new venture offers. A viable professional softball opportunity has proved elusive to-date, but AU’s approach might be just crazy enough to work.