By: Mark Newman / MLB.com
Ralph Raymond is as close as it gets to John Wooden in the world of women’s fastpitch softball, with a personal 61-game winning streak in world competition and two gold medals as head coach for the 1996 and 2000 U.S. Olympic softball teams that inspired so many.
On Tuesday, however, all of that is “ancient history” in Raymond’s view.
“Right now it’s a new challenge,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll be up for the challenge and our ball club will be able and capable of doing the job.”
It is no longer about representing a nation for him, but it still is about helping women fulfill their athletic dreams. Raymond was lured out of the quiet life to be head coach of the New England Riptide, one of six teams that begin play in the new National Pro Fastpitch league that is backed by Major League Baseball, the NPF’s official development partner.
Already hoping to piggyback off of the rich history between the Red Sox and Yankees, Raymond’s Riptide open at the New York-New Jersey Juggernaut in Upper Montclair, N.J. The Akron Racers play against the Texas Thunder in Houston, and the Arizona Heat begin on the road against the California Sunbirds in Stockton, Calif.
It is a serious league with a serious future and some serious talent. It is a collection of nearly 100 of the best fastpitch players available — save for those preparing for the 2004 Olympics in Greece — and is widely regarded as the best hope yet for a professional career in the increasingly popular sport.
“What Ralph is saying is exactly right,” said Christa Williams, who pitched for Raymond on the 1996 Olympic team, threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Saturday’s Astros-Cardinals game in Houston and probably will pitch the opener for the Thunder in her hometown.
“What each of us has done in the past doesn’t matter here,” Williams added. “Those teams were successful because of their chemistry, and that is what will be the most important element in this new league. All of the teams are so well balanced, the team that has the best chemistry is the one that will rise above the others.”
The Riptide are typical of the other NPF charter clubs, fresh off a weekend clinic for youths at Fenway Park in conjunction with the Red Sox and now eager to show softball and baseball fans why this league should be part of their summer.
All it took to get Raymond involved were a couple of dinners at an Italian restaurant and a glimpse at the potential for these and future players.
“I remember actually having two meetings with him,” said Joe Adlman, the Riptide’s general manager. “The first was more introductory. I did not think he would be interested in coaching but I thought he might be helpful in suggesting players to recruit and I told him that I would appreciate his help in any manner he could give it.
“One thing led to another and pretty soon we were actually talking about him coaching. At our second meeting, also over Italian food, which is his favorite, we discussed specifics — and pretty soon the Riptide had as its coach the most successful coach in softball history.”
Raymond said he “thought it was all over after the last Olympics,” so he confined himself to consulting with the Amateur Softball Association and some scouting. “It never entered my mind that I would be going onto the field again,” he said, “until Joe came down to Worcester from Lowell (both in Massachusetts) and talked to me one night, asked if I was interested in being coach of the Riptide. Immediately I thought it was another challenge. I’m in now and we’ll see what happens.
“One of the big things about the softball game, it’s kind of a family affair. A family can go to one of the softball games and spend $50 at a game for tickets, soda, hot dog and what not. Also, the softball game is an excellent venue for the young ladies in the country who would like to take part in some type of activity.
“So I am kind of an optimist in that I think the pro league should remain an outlet for young ladies who want to go on in the game. Because right now the women’s major program in the country is on the downgrade, and the 18-under softball player has nowhere to go after she turns 19. So this pro league gives them an opportunity to go on should they want to continue playing.”
That means Raymond continues coaching, and right away you can see the intensity again. One of the big issues on the eve of this first season was the transition from the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City to these openers. All teams were affected, with top new talent unavailable for the NPF’s spring training and question marks for the actual openers if they were playing for the University of California or UCLA in the World Series title game.
Raymond could only watch as the Stanford battery — pitcher Dana Sorensen and catcher Jessica Allister — reached the semifinal game with the Cardinal on Sunday but lost 3-1 to UCLA. Both are Riptide draft picks who would need to get to New Jersey in a hurry.
The same goes for LaDonia Hughes, the Riptide draft pick who was the center fielder for the Louisiana State team that lost to Cal in the other semifinal. Those losses mean there is no worry now about whether those three players will be ready for Tuesday’s opener at Montclair State University, but Ralph still was contemplating how the transition might affect Sorensen.
Ask anyone about Raymond, and they will tell you that he recruits not only talent, but also attitude.
“The thing you have to consider, in the case of Sorensen, I think she has already pitched something like 340 innings for the year at Stanford,” Raymond said. “Is she going to have some kind of a letdown when she comes in, or she still going to stay high? That’s one of the things I’m thinking about. Will there be some kind of a letdown before she gets her second wind with this season?”
And what about the possible glamour pitching matchup on opening day between New York/New Jersey’s Michelle Smith — a two-time Olympic gold medalist under Raymond — and Jocelyn Forest, who was 8-0 at the 2002 College World Series while pitching Cal to its first title? Ralph was taking a wait-and-see position.
“I have to wait and see exactly how I want to attack that,” he said. “Should I start Megan (Matthews, the all-time strikeouts and innings record-holder for the University of South Carolina) or Sorensen against Smith, and have Jocelyn come in the second ballgame? If I do that, it could very easily result in a very good pitching duel.
“Rather than waste a good outing, I think it would be almost much better to have (Forest) come in the second game. The thing is, New York/New Jersey is loaded. They have a lot of experience, a lot of people who have been there before. So I’m waiting to see exactly how I’m going to play it.”
Many people have been waiting, in several cases a lifetime. The wait is finally over.
While the Women’s College World Series ended with a decidedly California flavor, that state’s NPF team was preparing to build on the tournament’s momentum. The Sunbirds recently changed their name from Sacramento to the full state, as an example of the sweeping popularity they hope to achieve.
After Sunday’s San Francisco Giants game at SBC Park, the Sunbirds conducted a clinic on the field for 100 kids, which had been advertised on local TV commercials. It is through many such cooperative examples that MLB intends to help raise NPF awareness, and with Tuesday’s opener against Arizona (based in Tucson), the real fun begins.
“You wouldn’t believe what’s in this office that’s waiting to go to the stadium — all the signage that has to be produced, just getting ready to open the gates,” said Glenn Wolff, the Sunbirds GM. “It’s a tremendous feeling for everyone on the staff. Players are getting excited, and I’m getting excited.”
Williams added: “We just can’t wait to get on the field.” Little wonder. She is the Roger Clemens of Houston’s NPF franchise, having starred at the University of Texas (like the Rocket), won Olympic gold and now hopes to see it all come together at home. But facing her is likely to be 2000 Olympic gold medalist Danielle Henderson, who ranks fifth on the NCAA’s all-time strikeouts list with 1,343.
“It’s what happens now that’s going to count,” Raymond says, surveying his new world of talent and competition, his new challenge. “I’m very happy with what we have thus far, because of the attitude of each and every one of the kids we have. All a coach can ask for is 110 percent.”
That’s all. And a professional league in which to give it.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.