Olympics softball no ordinary tournament

Posted: Wednesday, September 27, 2000

SYDNEY, They wouldn't have imagined a situation like this.

Of all the ways the U.S. women's softball team might have seen themselves winning another Olympic gold medal, none of them would have picked the way they did Tuesday night.

With a silent bats. On an error by Japan. As an underdog.

That's really the part that is so impossible about the American team's 2-1 championship-game win, that it was surprising.

Two weeks ago, the chance of softball's Goliath seeming so small were about as good as a well-oiled Olympics. The odds of America being anything less than commanding in softball were as long as Australia being anything but demure in its celebration of the games.

All would have been losing bets.

This was no ordinary softball tournament, with the competition even and hitting non-existent. And this has been no ordinary week for the U.S. team that has had the most unlevel ride around Sydney of any team, bouncing from a pedestal to a gutter to the top of a medal stand. To the top of the world, really.

When the little lists that record Olympic history are printed, they will show the U.S. having won the first two gold medals in softball. But that will be an insufficient explanation of this team's accomplishment in Australia, won't show the work that went into its successful title defense.

And it won't show how the heaviest favorite in the entire Olympics --outside of inevitable controversy, that is -- had one skinny chance to win the gold and took it.

The U.S. came into this tournament seeming stronger than garlic. They had won 110 straight games, had eight players back from the 1996 gold-medal team and had perhaps the two most unhittable pitchers in the game, an underhanded Koufax and Drysdale.

But the windmill delivery was not all that turned strangely at these Olympics. America's dominance spun just as swiftly.

They lost three straight games, which the U.S. had never done before in international play. They stopped hitting, going 39 innings at one point without a run. And they forfeited the invincibility they brought into the tournament, that unbeatability they had in Atlanta and had carried to college campuses and small towns while traveling the country since 1996.

Six days ago, this team was 2-3 for the Olympics, in a Wile E. Coyote kind of slump and one more loss away from the most embarrassing Olympic failure since Seoul served chargrilled dove at its opening ceremonies.

Fear of the U.S. team was gone and jokes about them had already started.

(ITALICS)What's the easiest job at ther Olympics? Third base coach for the U.S. softball team.(END ITALICS)

"We understand somebody's got to win and somebody's got to lose, but we're used to being on the winning side,'' said team captain Dot Richardson. "We knew, as long as we played USA softball, we could keep plugging away. The confidence never left, but there was reflections of the nightmares that happened.''

They never really woke up, either, never started hitting again, even as they won five in a row to reach the only acceptable finish they could have had to these Olympics.

Tuesday was hard that way. As long as the U.S. team had gone just to get there, they had to win. Because Secretariat can't accept silver.

Earlier in the tournament, they had lost twice in 14 hours. Now they had to win for the third time in 30 hours or be viewed as losers. It was a tough situation. And a tough game.

Japan took the lead on a home run that should have been caught, and just as championship games always manage to work out, the player who missed the ball got the big hit to change the result.

Little Laura Berg came up with runners on first and second in the bottom of the eighth and hit a ball to left field that Japan's Shiori Koseki caught up to and briefly had in her glove. But as she fell to the ground and the ball popped out. Jennifer McFalls scored the winning run and the entire U.S. team met in a delirious pile at home plate.

They celebrated hard, running in different directions, kneeling in the infield dirt and going as a group to the right field stands, where their families were sitting. They had done the same in Atlanta, but this time it seemed more ernest, less rehearsed. This time it didn't seem like something they knew was coming all along.

"Winning the gold medal in the first Olympic softball competition was great and something I'll cherish, but I think this surpasses it because of how much we had to overcome, how we were challenged and fought,'' said U.S. picther Lisa Fernandez. "That's what makes it such an overwhelming feeling.''

And, impossibly, such an impossible dream.

Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera can be reached at 652-0352 after Oct. 8.

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