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There was a double take, as there so often is when a movie star mingles with the masses. Sweaty from an evening workout at a Venice Beach, Calif., gym, Matt Amundson was caught off guard last October when he encountered a famous dark-haired actor while preparing to order a smoothie at Whole Foods Market. "Hey," the actor said to the hulking Amundson, "I recognize you from somewhere." � "Yeah," Amundson answered, "I played football at UCLA." � The actor squinted for a moment. "No, that's not it." � That's when it dawned on Amundson that something very strange was happening in his universe. "My girlfriend plays softball?" he offered.
"Yes!" exclaimed the actor, who happens to know a thing or two about famous squeezes. "That's it! You're one of those Horsey guys. I saw you on TV."
As one of the Four Horsemen, a quartet of cheering, crooning Bruins softball fanatics who wear their loyalty on their bulging biceps, Amundson has had a prime seat for the unlikely transformation of a sport once devoid of cool. Stereotyped for decades as an offensively challenged, sparsely attended struggle among brawny women, college softball--and women's fast-pitch softball in general--has moved into the casual fan's field of vision more dramatically than a Jennie Finch rise ball. On Thursday, when the eight-team Women's College World Series begins in Oklahoma City in front of crowds that by the weekend should reach 8,000, the buzz will extend from major league clubhouses to beer-soaked frat houses to living rooms full of wide-eyed schoolgirls.
"This sport is really erupting," says Cal coach Diane Ninemire, whose second-ranked Golden Bears will try to reach the WCWS championship round (this year a best-of-three series) for the fourth consecutive season (box, page 46). "It's faster than baseball, and when people see how exciting it is, they come back for more."
With impressive TV ratings, a Web presence and a crossover appeal cemented by the dominant performance of last year's U.S. Olympic team, softball is poised to make a run at women's basketball as the NCAA's glamour sport for female athletes. For the fourth straight year ESPN or ESPN2 will televise every game of the WCWS, showcasing the sport's winning formula: short, taut games fraught with dramatic comebacks; players who exude enthusiasm; and spirited battles between nasty pitchers and fearsome hitters.
The number of countries with national softball organizations has virtually doubled, to 126, since the 1991 announcement that softball would be an Olympic sport in '96. The 2003 WCWS championship game between Cal and UCLA drew a 1.6 TV rating, meaning it was seen in approximately 1,359,000 households. (The '04 title game, a Bears-Bruins rematch, drew a 1.3 rating.) With the recent launches of College Sports TV and ESPNU and with an assist from the NHL lockout-- ESPN's recent softball telecasts got ratings similar to those of regular-season hockey games, some of which aired last year in the same slots--softball's exposure is at an alltime high.
The traffic is similarly robust at the website ultimatecollegesoftball.com, started four years ago by Orange County, Calif., high school teacher Steve (Robocoach) Robitaille, whose daughter was then a pitcher for Cal State-- Fullerton. UCS is a spirited forum in which coaches, players, parents and fans from all over the world debate everything from Pac-10 supremacy to ugly uniform designs. "Last month," Robitaille says, "there were more than 775,000 hits."
Softball's unofficial welcome to the big leagues came in the wake of the 2003 WCWS. Barry Bonds was so impressed by Cal's power-hitting Veronica Nelson (117 at bats, 107 walks, .692 slugging percentage during her senior season) that he invited the big first baseman to hang with him in the clubhouse before a San Francisco Giants game. The previous year, during her senior season at Arizona, Finch, whose blonde-bombshell looks have helped make her the world's most recognizable player, became friendly with Diamondbacks star Luis Gonzalez after he showed up at a Wildcats game to watch her pitch. Gonzalez later lured one of the Diamondbacks' pitching prospects, Casey Daigle, to see the Cats--which is how Finch came to meet her future husband. "That's the cool thing about spring training being in Tucson," Finch says. "You see major leaguers at [University of] Arizona games all the time."
During the WCWS, some big league clubhouses are captivated by the competition--and the competitors. "We love it!" Oakland A's pitcher Barry Zito says. "We watch and look for hotties, and trip out on how chicks throw that hard."