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Mark Edwards: Thank you, Team USA, for bringing your best to Oxford

Team USA

Team USA celebrates a home run by Hannah Flippen (37). The group includes former Alabama standout Haylie McCleney, far left.

OXFORD — Team USA didn't hold back in the softball exhibition games Tuesday at Choccolocco Park.

They played their best players, not just a bunch of temporary fill-ins to participate in a few exhibition games. This truly is the national team, probably the best softball squad and the best players in the world. The only team that can dispute that is Japan, which beat the USA for the 2008 and 2020 Olympic softball gold medals. Japan is in town, too, by the way, with all of its best players.

Team USA and Japan faced off in the late game Tuesday in front of an overflow crowd at Choccolocco's Signature Field, right after Team USA won 4-0 over Australia's national team, which finished fifth in the 2020 Olympic Games. Japan won 7-1 after the Americans won 3-0 in Columbus, Ga., in a Monday night exhibition. Team USA will face a professional team, USSSA Pride, on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. at Choccolocco Park.

If there was any doubt the Americans were willing to give the fans a good show, they answered from the start Tuesday. They opened against Australia with Monica Abbott in the circle. Abbott is a softball legend. In international competition, she is 28-1 all-time for Team USA. In the last Olympics, she didn't give up an earned run.

And she was in Oxford. Pitching at Choccolocco Park.

So was Ally Carda, who was one of Team USA's top three pitchers in the last Olympics. So was Haylie McCleney, the former Alabama star and a longtime Team USA center fielder. She hit .529 in the last Olympics. Montana Fouts, a current Alabama standout and part of the next generation of American softball stars, is part of the team, too, starting against Japan.

It's like having the Astros and Braves meet at Choccolocco Park's baseball field, with Justin Verlander opening on the mound for Houston and Ronald Acuna Jr. in the outfield for Atlanta. Or the Rams and the Bengals meeting at Oxford High's football field, with all the usual starters in the game at every position.

Abbott stands 6-foot-3, and her arms are so long that it seems as if she's releasing the ball halfway between the pitching rubber and home plate. She faced 10 Australian batters and struck out seven without giving up a hit.

McCleney made a signature play against Australia that Crimson Tide fans have seen plenty — sprinting to run down a line drive in center field and making it look like an easy out.

Who would've thought Oxford would get to host athletes of this caliber?

But Team USA shouldn't be here, and please don't take that as anything but supreme respect for this squad and the sport of softball.

They're here to play in the World Games the next two weeks in Birmingham, which is a consolation prize for sports that won't be part of the next Olympics.

The World Games don't have the 100-meter dash, but there will be drone racing. Soccer isn't in Birmingham, but flag football is. No decathlon, but there is orienteering. (Don't ask, I'm not real sure what that is, either.)

No basketball, but the World Games does have korfball, floorball and fistball, although that last one sounds especially painful.

The International Olympic Committee keeps giving softball the short straw. Softball was dropped after the 2008 Games, despite an outcry of protest from the softball community. When Japan hosted the 2020 Games (which were played in 2021 because of COVID-19), softball was included because the host country can add a handful of sports.

Japan likes softball, so it was in. France has the 2024 Games, and the French don't care about softball, so it goes back to the sidelines. Instead of going to Paris, they're in Birmingham.

The IOC has complained that softball doesn't have much interest outside of North America. That's obviously not true with Japan, Australia and Italy qualifying for the last Olympics. If European teams fared better, then maybe opinions would change, but it's not softball's fault that Europe can't hit the broadside of a barn with a bat or a ball.

It hurts, too, that the IOC seems to lump softball together with baseball, and baseball's relationship with the Olympics is lousy at best. Softball didn't ask for the association, but it's stuck with it nevertheless.

Baseball got dropped after the 2008 games, too, which resulted in a collective yawn. For the 2020 Games, Japan invited baseball back because the sport is big there, but as with softball, that won't happen in 2024.

The IOC wants Major League Baseball to shut down its season for two weeks and allow its best players to participate in the Olympics, rather than send minor leaguers. So far, MLB has responded with a popular one-fingered gesture that's rather unfriendly.

MLB figured — and rightfully so — that most of its fan base would rather see their team win a World Series than their country win a gold medal. What would you have wanted more last year: the Braves winning a championship last fall or the USA baseball team taking a gold medal?

Yeah, I thought so.

As much as softball and baseball have in common, they're not the same sport and shouldn't be treated the same way. The Olympics were exceptionally important to softball, and it's painful to see these athletes no longer having that opportunity to play in front of a world audience.

How fair is it that extraordinary players such as McCleney and Fouts won't get a chance to play in the 2024 Games but they might've had the MLB been willing to play ball, so to speak?

At least we get to see these softball stars play in Oxford and Birmingham. France's loss is our gain.

Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.