Tokyo Weekender sits down with America’s top softball pitcher, Keilani Ricketts, to discuss the world’s strongest professional softball league and the fight to return the sport to the 2020 Olympics.

By Sami Kawahara

Exactly one year after pitching in a 10-inning, heartbreaking loss versus Japan in the 2012 World Cup of Softball Championship, Keilani Ricketts finds herself amongst former rivals as she joins the JSA (Japanese Softball Association) this season.

A four-time All-American for the US National team, the University of Oklahoma graduate has seen the best players in the sport of softball—and she has marked with confidence Japan as the best league for professional softball.

It’s the female counterpart to Japan’s beloved sport of baseball, so it is only fitting that softball attracts hundreds of people at every game alongside a full band, cheerleaders, and corporate sponsorships for each team. Founded in 1968, JSA hosts 12 teams throughout Japan. Teams play each other twice in a 7-inning game before the top four teams compete in the playoffs in November. It’s a two-part season, with a summer break in between, when Keilani plays in the US’ professional league, NFT, during that time.

But Keilani notes the overall style of play is completely different. “Japanese girls are a lot smaller, they’re faster and quicker and they have short angles on their hitting,” she explains. “We Americans rely more on our power and our strength and we try to hit the long ball, hit home runs and pitch the ball hard. Japanese try to make things happen with their small plays, and that’s what works for them, because right now they are number one in the world.”

The Japanese National team has earned medals in the past three Olympics, and won the Gold Medal in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing—the last time softball was in the Olympics. In 2005, softball and baseball were voted out of the Olympics: a decision that came into effect for the 2012 games.

In April of this year, softball and baseball joined together in one bid to support the “Return of the Olympics” campaign for the 2020 Olympics, against wrestling and squash. After the announcement that Tokyo had won the bid to host the Olympics, the two sports were optimistic with their chances to return, given the extreme popularity of baseball and softball in Japan. However, last month in September, a decision was made and unfortunately for softball and baseball, wrestling won the bid with 49 votes against softball/baseball’s 24 votes and squash’s 22 votes.

But hope is not lost: there is a two-year period to petition, and with the International Olympic Committee’s President stepping down this year, softball supporters are hopeful that the sport’s slim chance to return will prevail. The Olympic games also hosts one exhibition sport, giving softball and baseball another chance to participate in the games as well.

Although Keilani would eventually have to play against her current teammates, she “loves it here in Japan, where everyone is so respectful. Before the games, we line up and bow to the opposing team, the umpire, and the opposing team’s fans as they wish us good luck. You don’t see that in the states.”

Here’s to hoping that we see these traditions play out in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo!

Image: College Sports Madness