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Natasha Watley’s retirement plan? Keep on winning

After winning medals and trophies on softball fields all over the world, Natasha Watley has decided to focus on introducing inner-city girls to the sport she loves

Natasha Watley remembers the first softball game she played. More specifically, she remembers the first time she put bat on ball and tried to run directly to third base. It is the kind of indelible experience that is difficult to forget — not that there is any chance her family would let that happen.

In what turned out to be the final time she put bat on ball, she beat a roller for an RBI single to help her Toyota Motors team win the championship game in the playoffs of the Japanese professional league. It was Nov. 27 of last year, her 35th birthday. When the game was over, for the first time since she ran the wrong way three decades earlier, she realized she was ready to stop.

“It’s time,” Watley said this week. “I’m ready to move on.”

One of the best players in softball history, a four-time first-team All-American at UCLA who won Olympic gold and silver medals for the United States, three world championships and numerous professional titles both in this country and over eight seasons in the Japanese pro league, Watley made it official Wednesday. She retired.

“If I broke a barrier, if I made any African-American girls say, ‘I can because Natasha did,’ then that makes me feel proud and excited.” – Natasha Watley

“Natasha Watley was one of the greatest athletes I had the pleasure to watch perform and coach,” said Mike Candrea, who coached her in the Olympics with Team USA and against her in the iconic Pac-12 rivalry between Arizona and UCLA. “She played the game of softball with a tremendous combination of speed and power. She will go down in history as one of our greats to play the game: competitive, humble, talented and a tremendous teammate.”

Which is not to say that she is finished with softball. Watley, who won the batting title in Japan last season, didn’t retire because she is incapable of playing well. Nor was it that she ceased to enjoy playing. She retired in no small part because of a desire to help others gain access to the playing field.

That makes sense for someone whose legacy will be as much about those she brought to the sport as what she did in it.

If Lisa Fernandez is the Ruthian figure in the history of UCLA softball, the college game’s first great dynasty and flagship program, Watley is on any short list for the Westwood versions of Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle. Only two players in NCAA history have more hits than Watley, whose .450 batting average ranks fourth all-time among major conference players. She ranks in the top 20 in career stolen bases and hit 10 home runs as a senior — the complete offensive player Candrea described.

Add her international and pro careers, and Watley paces any argument about the best shortstop of all time. Although the defensive side offers fewer tangible measures, she was a marvel in the field. The same holds true for debates about the best leadoff or slap hitter of all time.

All of that stands on its own. Watley was one of the most accomplished players who ever stepped on a field. Full stop. But by simply being that while being African-American in a sport that has always struggled with diversity, she was afforded the opportunity for influence.

It was an opportunity she ran with.

“When I was going to college, there weren’t very many African-American girls,” said Watley, raised in Southern California, of her softball experience. “Growing up, there weren’t that many African-American girls for me to look up to as role models. I definitely feel like now, across the board, there are a lot of us. I love it. If I broke a barrier, if I made any African-American girls say, ‘I can because Natasha did,’ then that makes me feel proud and excited.”

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