By John Sammon
Shannon Mortimer has been instrumental in helping to grow women’s softball into the major sport it always had the potential to become. As a player and today a coach of young women of Japanese ancestry, she has seen the sport rise from an obscure past to an internationally recognized event.
Women’s softball has come a long way from the formation of its first team in 1895.
At the time it was considered merely a diversion….for women. Men often thought of women’s softball as irrelevant, even described it in insulting and sexist terms (deleted here), a game appropriate for women, demure, gentle, ladylike, a “soft sport” that could be ignored.
“There are two professional softball leagues for women in this country today and women’s softball has been evolving like crazy,” Mortimer said. “The fan base for the 2022 Women’s College World Series in softball exceeded that of the Men’s College World Series.”
One of the women’s professional leagues founded in 1997 formerly called “National Pro Fastpitch” was retitled “Women’s Professional Fastpitch” in 2022. A second professional women’s league under the title “Athletes Unlimited” brings together 56 of the world’s best women softball players for five weeks of competitions held in July and August at the Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Illinois.
Professional women players from around the world are drafted and placed on teams. The salaries for the best of them have become serious. Monica Abbott, a pitcher for the Tennessee Lady Volunteers who also competed in the 2008 and 2020 Olympic Games (she recently retired), signed a contract for $1 million.
“There is plenty of money to be made in professional women’s softball,” Mortimer noted.
Softball became an Olympic sport for the first time in 1996.
In fast pitch women’s softball (thrown underhand), the ball rockets across the plate with great speed. The distances are shorter than in men’s regular hardball.
“Because of this (distances) women’s softball is just as fast a game as men’s hardball,” Mortimer said. “Regular baseball (hardball) is farther back than softball. In softball the pitcher is 43 feet from the plate.”
In men’s hardball the distance is 60 feet 6 inches from mound to plate.
“The bases in regular baseball are 90 feet apart,” Mortimer added. “In softball they are 60 feet.”
Her grandmother was born in Japan in the Kagoshima area, making Mortimer a natural for one of her present roles, coaching a softball team composed of women players (amateur non-professionals) of Japanese descent who compete with players from other countries.
Baseball in Japan has for over a century been practically a national mania.
“Our professional athletes go to Japan to play and make more money,” Mortimer said.
Born in Antioch and growing up in Pittsburg, Mortimer today lives in Oakley. She inherited the love of baseball from her father Doug Cherry. He was a standout baseball player for St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California.
“He was a hardball pitcher and now plays softball,” Mortimer recalled. “I grew up around softball fields. My dad would take me to watch tournaments as a young girl.”
Attending Central Junior High (Pittsburg), Mortimer said the school didn’t have a softball team at the time so she began playing in the Pittsburg Little League and at local youth recreation leagues in the 1990’s.
“I ended up playing just about every position,” she said, “wherever the teams needed me.”
Mortimer said she learned from her coaches to exhibit a mental toughness in playing the sport.
“You sometimes fail more than you succeed,” she explained. “But you don’t let it (adversity) get to you. You learn to forget about it and move on.”
She also learned to deal with the potential pressure caused by fans.
“You tune out the fans yelling in the stands, you don’t pay attention to them. I think those are good habits,” Mortimer said.
Attending Los Medanos Junior College (Pittsburg), Mortimer took business classes planning to attend a four-year college. However, marriage to Michael Mortimer a police officer and the birth of their daughter Mikaela changed the plans.
Mortimer’s start in coaching began when she served as a coach for her daughter’s team in tee ball. Intended for small children, age four to six, instead of pitching the ball to a batter the ball is set on a stationary upright “tee,” like a pole, and hit from there. Mortimer said it’s a good way to teach young children the basics of the game.
She also coached at her former Pittsburg High School in 2003 and at the Delta Valley Middle School.
In total Mortimer has 25 years playing softball including the positions of pitcher and infielder.
As a coach she said she is competitive but not ruthless.
“I’m not one of those, you-have-to-win-no-matter-what-the-cost coaches,” Mortimer said. “There is nothing wrong with teaching competiveness, but it’s not the only thing (includes good sportsmanship too).”
Mortimer said coaching and the game of softball have changed radically over the years.
“Today you break things down you teach the mechanics of the game and the fundamentals,” she said. “There is more athleticism and more training (for example lifting weights).”
In 2010 Mortimer took a position coaching softball for the All American Sports Academy in Tracy, California, an elite training and coaching facility for female softball players. Mortimer initially coached girls 10 years old and under.
“I was a head coach and instructor,” she said. “I also had a day job for 17 years as manager of a periodontal office where I could divide my time between the two.”
Mortimer worked her way up coaching young women 18 years old and under. She led her players against other girls’ teams in tournaments held in states like Colorado and Georgia. She eventually headed teams participating in tournaments sponsored by the sports equipment giant Nike and U.S. Softball, which began in 1999.
In addition Mortimer has become an overall fitness coach for women and men competing in a variety of sports.
“I’m not limited to one sport,” she said. “Today I teach physical fitness and conditioning.”
In 2020 Mortimer took on head coaching duties for International Team Japan, a participant in the yearly Triple Crown Fastpitch International Challenge held in June in Westminster, Colorado. The event is a tournament featuring the best women softball players from around the world representing 20 countries.
“The International Challenge started in 2020 and since then they’ve been able to bring in more players from countries in Africa and South America,” Mortimer explained. “We hold tryouts (remotely) by watching videos of the players in action and we find the best of them. For my team roster we’ve found players from all over for example Hawaii and New York.”
Mortimer’s Team Japan players are selected by her and must have some Japanese descent.
“You have to have at least a great-grandparent who was born in Japan,” she said.
Mortimer said previously there had been no team representing players of Japanese nationality or Japanese heritage, the reason she took the job as head coach of Team Japan. Given the popularity of the game in Japan, it was a need that needed to be filled.
In 2021 Team Japan made it to the finals (among 20 countries) and faced off against players from Cuba. Cuba took the Gold Medal in the final inning (games go seven innings), winning with a margin of one run on a play at home plate. Team Japan got the Silver Medal. In 2022 Team Japan made it to the Bronze Medal Championship (Cuba again won the Gold).
Mortimer said it gives her great pleasure to see the way women’s softball has progressed into a sport with international exposure.
“I think softball has gained respect and recognition finally because it’s so deserving,” she said.
For young girls who want to play softball Mortimer advised them to look for local leagues in their communities offering tryout opportunities to play.
At the 2021 games, Mortimer on the right, on the left is her assistant coach for Team Japan, Sarah Woofter.
The team photo above was taken last year in Colorado for the Triple Crown International Tournament.