By Rhiannon Potkey
Monica Abbott is used to hearing from younger softball players about how much she inspires them. But it caught Abbott a bit off guard when one of the top college coaches in the sport provided the same compliment.
During the USA Softball national team selection camp in Florida earlier this month, Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso approached Abbott.
Gasso recently signed a new contract that nears $1 million annually after leading the Sooners to back-to-back NCAA titles.
Abbott was the first in softball to join the $1 million club when the powerful lefty agreed to a six-year, $1 million contract with the Houston Scrap Yard Dawgs of the National Pro Fastpitch League in 2016.
“She said to me, ‘You know when you signed that deal I thought it was so groundbreaking and uplifting and I kept thinking about you during my contract negotiations,’” Abbott said of Gasso. “She said she put her foot down and knew she deserved it, and at one point was willing to walk away until they offered her something similar. I thought that was really cool to hear, and I was really pumped for her because she deserves it.”
Abbott, 32, is the best pitcher in softball by just about any measure – from statistics to intimidation factor to salary. The former University of Tennessee All-American shows no sign of the dominance ending any time soon. If anything, Abbott believes she is getting stronger.
She’s definitely more motivated, with the sport being showcased on the world’s biggest stage once again at the 2020 Olympics.
Abbott began playing for Team USA in 2005 and participated in the 2008 Olympics, when Japan beat the U.S. in the gold-medal game.
Abbott was ready for swift redemption, only to see softball removed from the Games for 2012 and 2016. Many players departed the national team for good or missed their athletic window of Olympic participation. They were left to wonder what might have been, a generation of players robbed of Olympic glory.
Throughout the years of uncertainty, Abbott endured and held out hope for softball’s return.
“I am pretty pumped and excited just to be back there. I was the youngest on the team in 2008 and I am excited to kind of flip the script a little bit and be one of the oldest and now be a leader with that experience,” Abbott said. “Hopefully the team can rally around that and come together. That is my dream image.”
Abbott stepped away from the national team in 2010 because she “had to make some grown up decisions” about her future.
“Basically once softball was out of the Olympics, the funding was cut. I needed to focus on how I could make better financial choices,” she said. “I needed to find another way to grow the sport and become an ambassador in a different way and still find a way to do it full time.”
Abbott helped softball make national headlines two years ago by signing her mega NPF contract and getting labeled the “Million Dollar Arm.”
It became a popular discussion point for Abbott nearly everywhere she went in the immediate aftermath.
“I still get a lot of questions about it, but not as many as you would think. It is almost like people were really excited and now people are almost like, ‘Duh, of course she deserves a million for what she has done,’” said Abbott, who was recently inducted into the Tennessee Athletics Hall of Fame. “Everyone is just waiting for the next person who is going to be in the same situation and I think it’s just due time. I don’t think people question the ability of female athletes.”
Abbott has showcased her worth in the NPF. She led the Scrap Yard Dawgs to their first Cowles Cup in franchise history last season, earning Most Valuable Player honors after limiting the USSSA Pride to 15 hits and striking out 56 over 29 innings in the series.
She’s been just as successful in the Japan Softball League, accumulating numerous titles and MVP honors playing for the Toyota Motor Corporation.
Abbott’s goal was to play a decade in Japan, and she’s preparing to enter her 10th season.
“I feel like I am kind of on the tail end of the career over there,” Abbott said. “I really want to focus on Team USA for 2020 and finding the best way for Team USA to be successful. If that means I need to stay over there and play two more years, I will. If that means I stop playing over there, then OK I am willing to do that.”
Although it’s hard being away from family like many female athletes must do to make money professionally, Abbott wouldn’t trade the international experience.
“It’s been a great opportunity for me to grow as an athlete. Any time you are in a country where you don’t speak the same language as them and people do something different than you, it really opens your mind and perspective,” Abbott said. “My perspective has really been opened through the different ways they play and how I can bring those now to Team USA.”
Even during her absence from the national team, Abbott maintained a connection with Team USA officials because she always knew she wanted to return and represent her country again.
For the good of the sport, she’s hoping any friction that existed between Team USA and NPF remains in the past.
“I can’t speak for every other team in the league, but I have a really good relationship with the Dawgs in Houston,” Abbott said. “When I signed my contract, I did tell them ultimately my goal was to go back and play in 2020 whether I play in the professional league or not. They are 100 percent behind me and have supported me. I am really blessed.”
Abbott has been appearing at clinics the last few weeks, trying to help young girls achieve some of the same dreams she’s already realized.
Abbott’s considered becoming a “pitching guru” once she retires from playing, yet rarely thinks about that stage in her life.
There are still too many more games to win, records to set and gold medals to chase.
“I feel the past couple of years I have gotten better, so it’s hard for me to think about something post-career when you still feel like you can give a lot to the sport,” Abbott said. “I am just really excited to see what the future brings.”