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College Softball

Jocelyn Alo’s Career Shouldn’t Have To End Here

Brian Bahr/Getty Images|

Jocelyn Alo #78 of the Oklahoma Sooners hoists the NCAA trophy as the rest of the team celebrates

Last night, with a single out remaining in the bottom of the last inning and with her team up 10-2, Jocelyn Alo left the NCAA Softball Championship Series. She had come in to play left field, made a few catches, and then her softball career was over. She could barely progress a few feet toward the dugout before she came to another teammate to hug. She stopped to embrace each of them, tears running down her face, until she got to the dugout. The camera stayed on her. She clapped with her teammates as they cheered on the Oklahoma team, but she was still crying.

The announcers didn't run through her ridiculous statistics. They had been doing it all series. Alo had the most career home runs in NCAA softball history (120). She hit 30 home runs in three straight seasons. She hit a whopping .509 this season with 32 home runs and 82 RBIs. She is without a doubt one of the greatest hitters the sport has ever produced.

"This is the end of her college career," the announcers said as she stood behind a teammate, wiping her eyes. Inside my stomach I felt a pit form, something that if given a little more space probably could have become a sob.

The game wasn't over when Alo came out. With two outs, Oklahoma walked two batters and gave up a three-run-homer. They walked another batter, and then got the final out they needed to clinch the title. For the fifth time in nine years and the second year in a row, Oklahoma won the national championship. The trophy was given immediately to Alo.

Alo held the trophy with one arm and hugged with her other. She has had a hell of a career in college softball. She is one of the best hitters the game has ever seen. She was given the most valuable player award at the end of the game. "I love this game," she said. She choked on her tears. "Sorry. I'm sad to be walking away from it, but I'm happy that I ended on top." Tears began to run down her face.

Because this is it. There's nothing else for her. It is so miserably unfair, so deeply fucked up, to watch a player like this forced to grieve the end of her career at age 23, at a moment when she is the best at what she does. There's no future available for her in softball. This is as far as she can possibly go.

Even a few years ago, things were less bleak than they are now. The United States' first softball league, the International Women’s Professional Softball Association (IWPSA), was founded in 1976. It lived for four seasons. Then there was the Women's Pro Softball League, which lasted from 1997 until 2001. Then it rebranded in 2002 and became the National Pro Fastpitch league. The league survived until last year. It had between four and seven teams each year, but the teams switched names and cities regularly. A team would die and another would pop up somewhere else. When I reported on the NPF in 2016, every single player I spoke to had a full-time job. They played softball in the summer. They had to because each NPF team had to squeeze their entire roster into a $150,000 salary cap. After two missed seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the NPF announced last August that they would be suspending operations.

Now there are two leagues trying to take up the space left by the NPF: Athletes Unlimited, a three-year-old league, and the newly launched Women's Professional Fastpitch league, which has two teams. Both leagues selected Alo first in their drafts. Both leagues play short summer seasons. Neither pay enough to be a player's full time job. Alo has said she will probably join one of the two.

The other option, in the past, for Alo might have been the Olympics. She will play in a couple of Team USA tournaments later this summer, but the 2024 Olympics in Paris chose to omit softball. So, the earliest Alo could play in an Olympic games would be in 2028, if the sport gets re-added.

This College Softball World Series was full of beautiful moments. Last night's game alone had incredible outfield catches, immaculate double plays, robbed home runs, and lots and lots of homers. There are rise balls and slapping hits and infields so fast that if you blink you could miss the whole play. But there is a lurking misery beneath all of the celebration and talent and fun: the knowledge that this is it. This, a college career ending for players in their early 20s, is about as good as it gets.

It's not like girls don't know this. I knew it when I played. Everyone who plays softball knows it. The reality that hovers over everything is that to keep playing softball after college, you will have to fight for it. In my lifetime, I have watched the rapid growth of the WNBA, the early rooting of the NWSL, and the fight professional women's hockey players are having for their future. But it just hasn't happened for softball yet. Trying to argue with people who want to debate whether or not a stable, well-funded professional softball league could be profitable does not interest me. Lots of things aren't super profitable but still deserve to exist. Lots of teams are deeply loved and underinvested in. By failing to invest in this sport beyond college sports, we are robbing ourselves of entire generations of talent.

Jocelyn Alo is 23 years old. Imagine for one second if there had been no definite future for Bryce Harper or Vlad Guerrero Jr. Twenty-three is not the peak age of an athlete. We know that people get stronger and faster and smarter and better. We know that a player out of college isn't the best they could ever be. But probably, this is the most security Alo will ever have in her softball career. Because the avenues that exist for her to improve are still struggling to be paved. There is hope, of course, that with her shining star rising these leagues might get more attention and funding and stability. But that should already exist.

She deserves so much more. We all do. We deserve to watch her for years to come. I wish a different future existed for us. I wish it could be better.

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