Ex-Olympian Crystl Bustos leads Charge into pro softball season

Rain had started to fall for the umpteenth time that evening. Fans who had endured the dreary weather were leaving, with some headed to an autograph session set up in a dry spot under the stands.

But coach Crystl Bustos gathered her softball team around her June 9 and talked for about 10 animated minutes, discussing why they’d lost for the first time this season.

It was the first-ever homestand in San Marcos for the Texas Charge, one of six squads playing in the National Pro Fastpitch League. The atmosphere, despite the threat of severe storms, was terrific. A six-person drum line pounded out a near constant cadence. Pop music played between innings. Elementary and middle school-aged girls, wearing their softball jerseys, danced in the aisles. Vendors threw free T-shirts and packs of peanuts into the crowd.

But a 9-4 defeat at the hands of Houston’s Scrap Yard Dawgs did sting. The Dawgs, thanks to three three-run homers, threatened to run rule the Charge. But with a flurry of late runs, Texas managed to turn what could have been an ugly result into a more respectable score.

It was the reverse of what had happened the night before, when the Charge opened the season with a 3-0 victory over the Dawgs. Since then, the team has improved to 5-4, including a 5-0 win at Chicago on Friday night.

Bustos told her team to forget what happened. Then she talked a bit of trash about the Dawgs — the Charge’s home-state rival — during her postgame press conference. Bustos, a three-time Olympian who is billed as the Babe Ruth of women’s softball, has backed her softball swagger for decades. It’s why she has two gold medals and the Olympic record for most home runs.

She used to scowl at pitchers, telling them that her favorite ball “was anything you throw. … There’s nothing you can throw I can’t hit.” One time, a pitcher bounced a ball in front of the plate and Bustos still hit it over the fence.

As for the Charge’s first loss, Bustos said: “Got lucky, (they) got lucky. At end of the day, they got lucky. You run into a ball, sometimes it goes, sometimes it don’t. Ball was in your favor. Notice they didn’t do too much after that.”

“I just want them to realize you win some, you lose some,” Bustos said. “I know it sounds cliché, but as long as you lace up, you’ve got a chance. When they leave these games, that (loss) leaves with you, It’s over; it’s done; it’s in the past.”

The Charge’s season will continue for another two months. They will play games outside Houston and in stadiums in Ohio, Illinois and Florida. A Chinese national team — the Beijing Shougang Eagles — also is in the league, rotating its games at the five other teams’ venues.

There’s always hope to extend a season to the playoffs in mid-August, with the winner hoisting the Cowles Cup.

While it’s all so new for the Charge in San Marcos, women’s pro softball is a relatively old concept.

The first women’s pro softball league was formed in 1976 and lasted four seasons. Big names from softball and other women’s sports such as tennis and golf spearheaded the International Women’s Professional Softball Association. Among the founders were tennis great Billie Jean King and pro golfer Jane Blalock, a one-time LPGA rookie of the year. The league featured 10 teams from Connecticut to California. Each team played 120 games in 60 doubleheaders.

In 1982, the NCAA began sponsoring women’s college sports and created the Women’s College World Series.

Another pro league went live in 1997. Back in 1989, former Utah State player Jane Cowles and her coach came up with a business plan for a women’s softball league. She presented it to her parents, who owned Cowles Media Co.

The league was first called Women’s Pro Fastpitch, then it was tweaked to the Women’s Pro Softball League. It was suspended in 2002, then relaunched with its current name in 2004 with Major League Baseball as a developmental partner.

The Charge have been around for three years. They started as an expansion franchise in the Dallas area with Jennifer McFall, the former Texas A&M All-American shortstop who served as an assistant at Texas, as the Charge’s first coach.

McFall, who scored the winning run for the United States against Japan in the 2000 Olympic gold medal game, left after a 17-31 season and a fourth-place finish in a five-team league.

The Charge were a bit better a year ago, going 20-30, but finishing fifth in a league that had expanded to six teams.

They played their games in McKinney at the Craig Ranch Softball Complex as the Dallas Charge. But last year the squad needed a new venue and couldn’t find one in the Dallas area. They moved to San Marcos, using the posh, 8-year-old softball stadium at Texas State, which seats about 1,000 and has two luxury suites to host VIPs.

“The fans have been great,” Bustos said. “The support has been awesome. Can’t complain. … At the end of the day, it seems like a good decision. You’re 30 minutes from Austin, 30 minutes from San Antonio. … At the end of the day, it’s a no-brainer.”

The roster features numerous players with ties to the area. There are three former Longhorns — Nadia Taylor, Brejae Washington and Mandy Ogle. Brittany Gomez, who starred at New Braunfels Canyon and Iowa State, is on the team. So is Haley Outon, a standout at Houston and Pflugerville High.

Bustos, although she’s been retired for seven years, still is the biggest name on the team. It’s her first full-time coaching job. She was hired to coach the Akron Racers in 2010 but decided to activate herself as a player. Her job since then has been operating her business, Ruthless Sports Training, in Los Angeles.

“She’s the real deal,” said Amanda Kamekona, a Charge infielder.

Taylor, who was an All-Big 12 third baseman for the Longhorns, is emerging as one of the Charge’s big hitters. She’s played pro softball for four years and is aiming for a spot on the 2020 Olympic team. Softball was added back as an Olympic sport after being sidelined by the IOC in 2012 and 2016.

Softball pays the bills for Taylor, who lives in Cedar Park. Her main income is from the private lessons and clinics she teaches to softball players. She also has an endorsement contract from Easton.

Through the first week of the season, Taylor hit two homers, tied for best in the league. She also had seven RBIs, second-best among all league players.

Before Taylor’s last at-bat in a recent game, Bustos called her over and told her to focus.

Taylor responded with a homer to left field. Bustos’ best advice for hitting homers is telling players to “put a barrel” on the ball, using its speed without trying to overswing.

“If you try to match speed with speed, ” Bustos said, “it’s like two cars — you’ll lose control.”

Bustos does put the game in her players’ hands. She’ll offer tips but doesn’t try to force her ways on them.

“At the end of the day, they’re grown women,” she said. “It’s on them, and I just explain to them what I like, what I see, what I would do, what I’d do in that situation; then they use what they use.”

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