By Jim Caple | Feb. 04, 2020, 12:01 a.m. (ET)

 

The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 run July 24-Aug. 9, 2020, with the Paralympic Games following Aug. 25-Sept. 6, and while they may be months away there’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Each Tuesday leading up to the Games, TeamUSA.org will present a nugget you should read about – from athletes to watch to storylines to follow to Japanese culture and landmarks – as part of “Tokyo 2020 Tuesday.” Follow along on social media with the hashtag #Tokyo2020Tuesday.

 

As a kid growing up in Morris, Alabama, Haylie McCleney remembers being a fourth grader glued to her TV as the U.S. women’s softball team rolled through the competition at the Olympic Games Athens 2004.

Then, four years later as an eighth grader, she was equally as captivated watching the powerhouse American team unsuccessfully go after a fourth consecutive gold medal in Beijing.

Competing in the Olympics, she said, has “kind of been a dream of mine since then.”

It’s taken perhaps longer than she’d hoped for, but McCleney will finally realize that dream this summer at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. And while the attention of this generation’s fourth- and eighth-graders is back focused on the Olympic Games, the U.S. team has an influential partner in helping ensure it’s getting a taste for Olympic softball.

Major League Baseball announced last week that it would be supporting the U.S. softball team as the presenting sponsor of the “Stand Beside Her” tour that begins tonight and will include dozens of exhibition games around the country leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Games. In addition to providing financial support during the team’s 35-city tour, MLB will provide resources to the team and use its platforms to help promote softball more broadly.

“MLB supporting the ‘Stand Beside Her’ tour is critical to advancing not only our team specifically but growing the game at the grassroots level,” said McCleney, an outfielder who has played in three world championships with Team USA, winning gold in 2016 and 2018. “MLB’s financial backing is allowing us to support ourselves as athletes and also provide opportunities for us to grow our personal brands through content development.”

The support couldn’t come at a better time.

After Japan shocked Team USA in that 2008 gold-medal game, the Olympic dream for McCleney and thousands of other young softball players died – at least for the time being. The International Olympic Committee had previously announced that softball, along with baseball, were out for the coming Games.

So even as McCleney thrived at Mortimer Jordan High School, leading the Blue Devils to three state titles, and then became an All-American at the University of Alabama, her sport’s ceiling remained frustratingly limited, with the top softball players still being able to compete internationally, but not on the global stage of the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

A generation of women never gave up on the Olympic dream, though, including McCleney, who graduated from Alabama in 2016. And now she’s one of 15 players who have already been named to the U.S. team that will take part in the sport’s long-awaited Olympic return this summer in Tokyo.

“It’s a dream come true, honestly,” she told TeamUSA.org.

The high of being able to compete this summer in Tokyo, however, is followed quickly by the reality that softball will not be part of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. That means the window of opportunity to reach this generation of fourth- and eighth-graders with a compelling Olympic run is short.

The assist from MLB is aimed at helping get the most of these next few months.

Though baseball and softball have long been considered separate sports – including at the Olympic level – the two have been joining forces more frequently in recent years. In perhaps the most notable example, after both being dropped from the Olympic program in 2008 baseball and softball’s international bodies merged in 2013 to create the World Baseball Softball Confederation.

MLB has also gotten in on the softball action. When the league launched its Play Ball initiative in 2015, with the goal of encouraging kids to get out on the diamond, USA Softball was one of the flagship partners. 

The “Stand Beside Her” tour aims to take that partnership to the next level.

Download the Team USA app today to keep up with all your favorite sports, plus access to videos, Olympic and Paralympic team bios, and more.

 

Haylie McCleney looks on during a game against Japan on June 25, 2019 in Tokyo. 

 

Beginning with an exhibition against the University of South Florida tonight in Tampa, the tour will take Team USA across the country, from Seattle to Shreveport, Louisiana, before wrapping up June 25 in Salem, Virginia.

Along the way, select stops will feature corresponding Play Ball events to help get more kids involved. The partnership also allows the U.S. team to train at the MLB-operated Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, while MLB Network will offer programming surrounding the tour. The players’ jerseys will also feature the MLB icon.

“With more opportunities to get girls to play, our fan base grows, our game grows, and all in all is a win-win for everyone,” McCleney said. “Without the partnership of MLB, things like this just wouldn’t be possible.”

While bringing top-level softball back to the forefront remains the immediate goal, those involved with the national team and tour are also playing a long game. While softball is already out for the 2024 Games, there’s still hope that it’ll be added back to the 2028 Olympic program when the Games are in Los Angeles.

Captivating that next generation of fans this year, first through the tour and then through another memorable Olympic performance, could go a long way in ensuring that happens.

It’s an opportunity McCleney and her teammates aren’t taking for granted.

“For us to be able to showcase that to the world, with the International Olympic Committee specifically, it’s going to be really, really big,” McCleney said. “I think there will be hope that we get it back in 2028.”

Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympic Games and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.