PHL softball and the chase for Filipinos’ Olympic dream

In Photo: Altomonte, veteran of many international softball competitions.

Mona Sulaiman, the Philippines’s sprint darling of the ’60s, had just won three gold medals in the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta. As she was preparing for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Philippine softball was likewise busy making a name for the country.

Filipinos will remember these marquee surnames during that time: Tayo (Julita was acknowledged as one of the world’s best pitchers for almost a decade), Jacinto, Kilayco, Elnar, Maco, among the many players in the national team.

The Philippine Blu Girls, second-place winner to World Champion Japan in Asian Women’s Softball Championship.

In every National Open Softball Championship, San Miguel, Bulacan, MPQCCA (Manila, Pasay, Caloocan Cities Athletic Association, predecessor of NCR), Rizal and Negros provinces were the most formidable teams. The others were reduced to minnows.

As competition was becoming fiercer, Rizal had built an arsenal of strong batters and talented all-around players. In a few years, it would change the softball landscape and lord over the Philippine softball kingdom, so much so that the nucleus of the Philippine team would be formed around it.

Its godfather, the visionary Governor Isidro Rodriguez, took good care of them like they were his own children, just as he did with track-and-field and volleyball athletes.

The province would become synonymous with Philippine softball. Mariquita Salazar, who, at one time or another, was named the best shortstop in Asia, pitcher Doris Reynes, Aleli Nabong, Cariday Rey, Purita Jacinto, Nenita Gatus, Emma Elnar, Carmelita Velasco, as well as catchers Leticia Gempisao and Anita Relova, to mention a few, were on the limelight. They were the rock stars of Philippine softball, and their names became famous not only in Southeast Asia but in Asia as well.

The “Blu Girls” soon became a buzzword, a moniker coined by Rodriguez who was then also president of the Amateur Softball Association-Philippines (ASA-Phil). Their biggest achievement was a bronze medal won in the World Championship held in Osaka, Japan, in 1970, the highest the country has ever garnered to this day. Another Blu Girls team placed fourth in the same World Championship held in Bridgeport, Connecticut, after four years.

The Blu Girls never ranked lower than 10th for the entire decade of the ’70s on global rankings. While they always placed second behind Japan, they were the undisputed champions in Southeast Asia.

Julita Tayo, the chubby pitcher from San Miguel, Bulacan, outfielder Aleli Nabong, and first base woman Carmelita Velasco, were the only Pinays whose names appeared in the International Softball Federation book for their outstanding performances in global competitions. Nabong was cited for belting out the most doubles in a world championship. Velasco earned her place on home runs.

The Blu Girls’ third-place winning feat in the prestigious championship not only made the Philippines as one of the finest softball-playing countries in the world but also gave hope to Filipinos that they, too, can bring more glory to the country from the international sporting arena.

During their heyday, one of the Blu Girls’ fans was the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos himself. When they returned home, a tumultuous crowd greeted them at the Manila International Airport and Marcos gave them an audience in Malacañang Palace. The impact of their big win in Osaka was so resounding the President regarded them as new heroes in sports.

The Filipinas could have made it to the finals against Japan had they defeated the US in the afternoon playoff. They had earlier dumped the US with a 1-0 score, but the former got back at them with a vengeful same score in the do-or-die match.

After winning all SEA Games Softball gold medals (whenever host countries did not scrap it), the Blu Girls name would lose its luster. The great names that wowed the entire country and the world disappeared. Some of them are still around. Others reduced to mere spectators as the sport they love best “plunged to oblivion, dying due to neglect and apathy of its leaders,” according to veteran sportswriter Eddie Alinea.

Spiral downhill

In 1998, the Philippines sent a ragtag “Blu Girls” team whose members came from nowhere, to participate in the International Softball Federation (ISF) World Championship in Fujinomiya City, Japan. It ended up 16th. Though it managed a solitary win, it wound up at the bottom of the standing.

Previously, no Blu Girls team had suffered such a humiliation and shame. Before this, there were many other forgettable foreign stints by both the Philippine men and women squads.

Once joined by fellow Asian powerhouses Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea in the top 10 world ratings in women’s and men’s divisions, the Philippines had been languishing at the bottom of the standing owing to mediocre leaderships that succeeded the Governor Isidro Rodriguez era.

The major reason for the deterioration of the sport according to Alinea is the Philippine Sports Commission’s policy of dismantling the national training pool whenever a particular event is scrapped from the calendar of events in the SEA, Asian Games or Olympics.

“Once a particular sport is removed from the calendar of events, the players’ monthly allowances are also removed, forcing athletes to seek playing opportunities elsewhere, mostly overseas. And because they’re under contract to play in the country where they’re employed, they, most often, lost their slots in the pool,” he said.

Renaissance

Softball continued to skid toward the year 2000. As the sport was dying and looking for someone who honestly cared for Philippine softball like Governor Rodriguez did, Raul Saberon, a successful trader and once a national softball/baseball team mainstay during his prime, found a sincere and eager benefactor to help softball out of the rut where it had stuck for over a decade: Jean Henri Lhuillier.

Saberon singled out Lhuillier as the most avid supporter of softball in the country today, just as Manuel V. Pangilinan is to basketball.

Under Lhuillier, the rebuilding process started inch by inch. Though it failed to qualify in the 2006 Doha Asian Games, it was slowly making progress—by setting its eyes on bigger things, aiming ambitiously: Rekindle the glory of the world-famous Blu Girls of the ’70s, and barge into the Olympics.

In 2007 Amateur Softball Association of the Philippines (ASA-Phil) chief Jean Henri Lhuillier bankrolled the Philippines team in the five-team Beijing Olympic qualifier. Former Blu Girl Nabong handled the team composed of a combination of Asian Games veterans and fast-rising youngsters (softball was scrapped in 2012 London and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics).

They did not make it, but it was quite noticeable that the RP Blu Girls were beginning to get its groove back.

Pay dirt

Last year, during the 11th Asian Women’s Softball Championship held in Taichung City, Taiwan, was the beginning of a milestone. The team wound up second to Japan after beating two superpowers in the sport—China and Chinese Taipei—marking the first time in 45 years that the country had bagged silver in the tournament participated in by 11 countries.

Nobody expected the Philippines to be in the top three. “It showed that the Blu Girls can compete among the best in the world, and with the preparation that the team is doing and with the support that we have been getting from Jean Henri Lhuillier, I know the team is ready,” coach Randy Dizer said in a broadcast statement.

With their podium finish, the Cebuana-Lhuillier-backed Filipina softbelles earned a slot in the 2018 World Softball Championship in Japan and the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia.

The WBSC (World Baseball Softball Championship) coverage of the event was flattering to the Philippines. Here are some excerpts:

“World’s No. 1 Japan scored one run on the top of the first inning, but blew the game open scoring five in the third and a final run in the fourth. Yamato Fujita and Haruka Agatsuma each hit doubles in the game. Yukiko Ueno earned the win.

“Prior to the gold-medal game, the Philippines defeated No. 9 Chinese Taipei 5-3 to advance to the finals. The Philippines struck first, scoring one run in the second inning, though Chinese Taipei tied the game up in the bottom half. Chinese Taipei took the lead in the fourth inning, scoring two. But the Philippines recovered, scoring four unanswered runs over the host nation—three runs in the 5th, and a home run in the 7th inning.

“The 17th-ranked Blu Girls faced world No. 6 China in the semifinals after demolishing Hong Kong, 17-0. Against the Chinese, the Filipinas were down 3-1 at the bottom of the last inning when Fil-Am Danny Gilmore hit a 2-run home run to tie the game, 3-3, and extend it to extra inning.

“The Philippines held China scoreless on the top of the 8th with perfect pitching from Anne Antolihao before Chelsea Suitos and Sky Ellazar teamed up to bring Cheska Altomonte home for the come-from-behind win.

“In the playoff match, the Philippines faced world No. 9 Chinese Taipei for the right to face world No.1 Japan. The hometown team easily built a commanding 3-1 lead in the first 4 innings before the Blu Girls came back with four runs in the fifth, capped by a home run by Chelsea Suitos for a 5-1 advantage.

“The Philippines kept Chinese Taipei scoreless until the end, arranging a championship match against Japan later in the day. But fatigue caught up with the Blu Girls, who eventually succumbed to the world’s No. 1 team as they settled for a runner-up finish.”

2020 Tokyo Olympics

“I really think we can beat the best teams in the world,” says Francesca Altomonte, team captain of the women’s softball team and veteran of many international softball competitions the country has participated in the last four years. If her name sounds familiar, she is a niece of advertising industry icon Emily A. Abrera.

“I am confident of our chances in big tournaments, that’s the reason I’m still playing,” Altomonte says. The big girl who started playing baseball as a pitcher, shortstop, and manned the third base at age 10, played with her brothers during her younger years. She converted to softball effortlessly and was recruited by Ateneo to play for UAAP for five years.

She tried out for the national team in 2010 but did not make the grade because she was barely 17. Four years later, honed by training and exposure to tough leagues, Chesca, as she is often called by her teammates, was taken in, along with players from the champion Adamson team and other standouts from UAAP.

At age 25, “I am the oldest in the team,” Altomonte says, who has traveled with the new Philippine Blu Girls team carrying the country’s flag in many competitions abroad.

Team captain Altomonte diligently wakes up at 5 in the morning, and trains at Rizal Memorial Baseball Stadium five days a week (Monday to Friday). She divides her time working with a marketing company but at the same time delights at the thought of competing again with some of the world’s best teams in the sport, notably Japan, the US, Canada, Australia, China, Mexico, Venezuela and the Czech Republic. “I am thrilled because most players in these teams are Olympians,” she gushes.

Spartan training

When competition is near, Altomonte and her teammates also train on weekends and have practice games to polish their skills. How do other countries train, do they follow the same regimen? Altomonte says, “It’s quality over quantity and more scientific. In the US, for example, batters train for just about two hours. Players are given 100 balls to strike within that time frame, a great drill that turns players into strong hitters,” she says.

What about injuries? Altomonte said she had it all. She had battled shoulder problems, suffered tendonitis, pulled hamstring, and twisted her ankle but that did not deter her. She always wore a mental toughness attitude, a trait you’d often see in tough leaders.

The moment she steps into the softball diamond, you can almost hear her say: “We can beat you. We are not intimidated by you.”

Altomonte and her team had beaten world medalists and came close to beating the US and world-ranked countries. Now it has boosted their confidence tremendously. “We would be scared stiff when facing Olympians and felt we’re not good enough. Not anymore today,” she says.

She laments that there is not much emphasis being put in the development of softball in the Philippines, a sport where the country has always won the SEA Games gold, Asean championships, belonged to Top 5 in Asia and ranked in the Top 20 of global rankings (unlike volleyball which has languished in No. 79 in spite of huge financial and media support being given by the government and private sectors).

“Indonesia had poached many Filipino coaches and hired former Blu Girl athletes as part of its coaching staff. The same with Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei,” she said. Altomonte is worried that if the trend continues, we might end up losing our best players.

The one thing that really inspires her is the company that she is working for right now. “They are so damn supportive,” she says sounding like as if she couldn’t thank them enough. “They always push me. They are my cheerleaders,” she exclaims. “It was really heartwarming actually hearing them say, they want my Olympic dream to come true,” she proudly says.

Meanwhile, Altomonte is deep into training for the 2018 World Women’s Softball Championship that will be held in Chiba, Japan, from August 2 to 12. The 16th edition of the tournament is the third to be sanctioned by the World Baseball Softball Confederation.

The following countries have qualified for the tournament: Australia, New Zealand for Oceania, the Netherlands, Italy and Great Britain for Europe, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the US and Venezuela for the Americas, Chinese-Taipei, China and the Philippines for Asia, and Botswana and South Africa for Africa.

Last July 5 to 9, 2017, the Philippines participated in the World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City, winning against highly ranked countries like Australia and Mexico. Altomonte hit a two-run homer to give the 17th-ranked Pinays a two-run cushion on their way to posting their second win in the eight-team tournament.

The Filipinas shocked the No. 4 Australians, 7-5, on opening day but dropped their next four matches. The Pinays and the Mexicans again faced off in the ranking match, and won via an 8-7 score.

In the 2014 World Cup, the Blu Girls only won against Venezuela with a score of 3-0. They competed against Canada, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Mexico, Venezuela and the US, which won the championship.

Considered a patron of Philippine sports, Jean Henri helps athletes representing the country in international tournaments and supports programs that aim to develop the youth through sports, particularly basketball, tennis and softball. He is married to award-winning gymnast Bea Lucero, who later on converted to taekwondo and won a bronze in 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

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Over 25 years of experience as advertising Executive Creative Director in the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia, and 20 years as Journalist for three of the country's major broadsheets. Former President, Creative Guild of the Philippines.

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