A softball nightmare turns dreamy

If ever there was a riches-to-rags story brewing here at the 2000 Olympics, it was the United States softball team.

The Americans came strutting and swaggering into town, and not without a portfolio. After all, they had won 112 straight games, many of them being situations in which it was hard to play for laughing.

This was not to be a competition for the US, but a coronation. Not only did they possess a stunning winning streak, they showed up with eight vastly experienced members of the 1996 gold-medal team in Atlanta. Besides - if another besides is needed - they have been world champs ever since 1986.

Olympic gold in softball was being thought of as a birthright.

And then the US lost three times in a row in preliminary rounds - to Japan, to China, to Australia. Mostly they couldn't hit a lick, especially stars like Lisa Fernandez and Dot Richardson, oldies but goodies from Atlanta.

Desperation set in. How desperate? The players had a cleansing ceremony after the loss to Australia. They put on their white uniforms and stood in the shower to wash away the evil, to chase off the weird "voodoo."

With that gone, everything got better really fast.

So fast that on a rainy Tuesday night, the Americans ended up wrapped in US flags acting for all the world like they're the best in the world, which they are, having defeated Japan, 2-1, in the finals. Gold medals are a beautiful thing. They match red, white, and blue.

"We never gave up," said coach Ralph Raymond, who had to be concerned early on that that might not be the case.

The other teams seemed energized by the early US losses. To win the gold, the US eventually played and defeated each of the teams that it had lost to earlier -China, Australia, and Japan.

The final against Japan was not a perfectly clean win for the US, but that's not noted on the medals. At the end of the seven regulation innings, the score was tied 1-1, and Fernandez was pitching her usual first-rate game. She gave up just three hits - although one was a home run.

The Japanese failed to score in the top of the eighth. But the US started making some noise in the bottom of the inning. Two runners reached via walks. To the plate came Laura Berg, one of the lesser knowns who two years ago led Fresno State to the 1998 NCAA championship. She smoked a drive to left field, and it looked like the Japanese fielder Shiori Koseki had gotten back in time and had it under control. It was in her glove.

But then the Americans witnessed what was to them the most beautiful sight imaginable: the ball popping out and rolling on the grass. Pinch runner Jennifer McFalls scored, and Koseki was given an error.

Subsequently, Berg said, "We always feel invincible." Feelings sometimes are inaccurate. The truth is the Americans hit poorly most of the Olympics and extra poorly in this game. They got just one hit, a single in the fifth inning by catcher Stacey Nuveman. It drove in Michele Smith, who had been hit by a pitch.

This is not the stuff of invincibility.

Soon, US softball officials will turn their attention to getting ready for 2004 in Athens. There will be plenty of changes. But even as the US basks in the glow of triumph when disaster seemed more probable, softball experts say the true story is how the rest of the world is closing the gap significantly on the US.

Berg wasn't ready to buy into this yet: "Now we have shown everybody that we truly are invincible."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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