Megan Gibson hit a Big 12 Conference-record 56 home runs in four seasons at Texas A&M, but you really only need to know about one.
“I hit one in practice,” the Tennessee Diamonds pitcher/first baseman said, “and it made one of our pitchers cry.”
The force is really strong with the young Texan. The only player in Big 12 history to be named conference pitcher of the year and player of the year in the same season, Gibson pitched the Aggies to the championship series of the 2008 Women’s College World Series.
A&M’s wild ride in that tournament included knocking off then No. 1-ranked Florida (70-5) in an elimination game to reach the finals.
That fact alone would be enough to endear Gibson to many of the fans who’ll turn out for Tennessee games this summer at Alcoa High School. The Diamonds will begin play there when they host the Akron Racers in the season opener on June 9. Over the succeeding three months, Blount County’s new National Pro Fastpitch franchise will welcome some of the sports biggest names to town, including NCAA record holder and former University of Tennessee pitching standout Monica Abbott, who leads the rotation for the USSSA (Florida) Pride.
Gibson and Diamonds’ ace Cat Osterman were in town for an introductory press conference at the Courtyard Marriott on Alcoa Highway on Wednesday. Signing two of the sports’ top stars is a great start, Diamonds general manager Sarah Fekete said.
“It’s always nice to have a name that’s a huge crowd draw,” she said.
The Diamonds got Osterman’s signature on a contract when the Rockford (Ill.) Thunder disbanded at season’s end last year. Osterman, an Olympian and former University of Texas All-American, pitched the Thunder to last season’s NPF title. As many as 10 former Rockford players will be in a Tennessee uniform this summer.
“They won the league last year,” Fekete said. “We just lucked out and were in the right place at the right time.”
Gibson left College Station, Texas, with A&M career records for runs batted in (183), doubles (48), home runs (56), total bases (447), slugging percentage (.717) and walks (172). The three-time All-American was then taken No. 2 overall by the Philadelphia Force in the 2008 NPF Draft.
After wins in her first two games with the Force, Gibson quickly attainted celebrity status in the city of brotherly love, prompting some genuinely curious autograph requests. One fan went so far as to bring along a leaf from a nearby tree.
“He would bring the most random things for us to sign,” Gibson said.
A sports management and business major at A&M, Gibson said she thought briefly about walking away from softball after college. Only the sport’s biggest names can secure lucrative endorsement deals on the professional level. The travel and total number of games played in a year can prove a grind.
Success for the Diamonds and the NPF in Blount County could mean a lot, Osterman said.
“Hopefully, we can get it more recognized,” she said. “Hopefully, it will grow, and people can play (fast-pitch) for a living. It’s taken some giant steps, and this summer will be a really big summer for us.”
After a season with the Force in 2009, Gibson spent the winter with Team Denso for Women’s Major League Softball in Japan. A love of the game and a sense of responsibility to the young girls that will follow players like her, Osterman and the rest more than makes it worth the effort, Gibson said. With softball out of the Olympic program until at least 2016, NPF has a vital role to play in coming years, she said.
“I don’t agree with (the Olympics dropping softball) because USA Softball was something little girls could look up to and want to be a part of,” Gibson said. “I think the league is on the right path now in terms of being successful. Having little girls that look up to the girls in the league is huge.”
A child of Title IX, Gibson said her first hero on the diamond, after older sister Krystal, was embattled former St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire.
“It was before the exploding home run year,” she said. “I changed my number to wear (McGwire’s) No. 25.”
McGwire’s recent admission to steroid use during his Major League Baseball career, including the year he hit a then-single-season record 70 home runs in 1998, was overdue, Gibson said.
“I feel like he should have done it a long time ago,” she said.
Bet Big Mac would trade all 70 of those home runs for one titanic blast that reduced the opposing pitcher to tears.