Teen pitching phenom looms as next women's softball superstar

Occasionally, say once or twice a game, Michele Granger throws a pitch that is so comically inept she can't keep from laughing. These Charlie Brown-like blunders, which roll meekly toward the plate, occur when she attempts a change-up, the most difficult delivery to master in women's fast-pitch softball.

Once she gets it down, the windmilling 17-year-old from Placentia, Calif., which has also has produced 15-year-old swimming prodigy Janet Evans, should be even harder to hit than she already is, which is very hard.

Some teams playing here in the 10th Pan American Games are barely able to touch her assortment of pitches - fastball of between 75 and 80 m.p.h., drop, rise, curve, and, when it's working, a change-up that tricks batters into swinging about one time zone early.

Granger, the youngest of three pitchers on the American team, tossed a no-hitter against El Salvador in her first start, then recorded a one-hit victory over Belize her next time out, the lone hit coming on a high hopper that glanced off her glove. She struck out 30 batters in the two contests.

``I'm just a typical teen-ager who plays softball seriously,'' she says under a frenetic-looking cascade of brown hair.

She plays to win, all right, but not with the bulldog intensity that squeezes the enjoyment out of the game.

She is quite loose and relaxed for someone who can be so overpowering that she once struck out all 21 batters she faced in a seven-inning high school game.

At last year's national fast-pitch tourney, she fanned 103 of 190 batters, a performance that earned her the Bertha Tickey Award as the competition's outstanding pitcher.

Tickey and Joan Joyce, two Hall of Famers who played many years, have probably been the game's best female pitchers. Granger, however, is potentially at their level.

The American public's fascination with those who combine youth, personality, and skill could make her the high-visibility, high-impact athlete softball has needed - a diamond version of Mary Lou Retton, if you will.

``She's going to be spectacular,'' says veteran hurler Kathy Arendsen, who marvels at what Michele has already achieved in a sport where women generally peak in their late 20s.

This fall, Granger will enter her senior year in high school, and Arendsen, a former coach at Northwestern University, has already warned her to devise a plan for dealing with a flood of recruiters.

``There's no doubt that she will be the first big-time recruited athlete in the sport...,'' Arendsen says. ``Michele can step in immediately and help build a program into a national contender.''

It would help, of course, if she wound up with a terrific team surrounding her, as she has on the Pan Am team.

United States head coach Carol Spanks hesitates to call the US squad the best women's team ever, ``because the players don't play together all the time. The talent, though, would be hard to beat.''

In fact, the US, 6-0 going into Monday night's final preliminary-round game against Canada, is expected to regain the gold medal it lost to that country in 1983.

In January, Michele notched a save against Canada, a no-hitter against New Zealand, and a perfect game against Indonesia, as the US went 13-0 to win the women's world fast-pitch championships in Auckland, New Zealand.

This summer she's been kept constantly on the go, and has enjoyed only six days at home. Softball, in a sense, becomes her summer job.

``Softball takes up a big portion of my life, there's no denying that,'' she says. ``But I don't want softball to become my life. When school starts, I care about getting a good education. I want the experience of being in student government and being with different types of people.''

Michele's father started teaching her the game when she was in the third grade. She eventually became bored playing the infield, and was given the choice of switching to pitcher or catcher. Toiling behind the plate held little appeal, so she took up pitching.

Control can be hard to master, and she's sailed a fair number of balls over the backstop. Patches of wildness coupled with a lack of hitting and fielding support help to explain how she managed to lose 16 high school games in her first two years. But gradually she's gotten most of the kinks ironed out.

Besides untold hours of practice, other factors contributing to her success are:

Height. At 5 ft. 10 in. she generates a lot of speed whipping her arm around.

The different look. As a southpaw, she presents new problems to batters accustomed to facing right-handers.

The short distance. In women's softball the pitching rubber is just 40 feet from home plate, compared with 46 in the men's game and 60 ft. 6 in. in baseball.

Against pitchers with good velocity, batters get only about a tenth of a second to make a decision. That poses a major problem, as Reggie Jackson once found out in striking out against Arendsen in a specially arranged duel. ``He kept saying, `You're so close, you're so close,''' Arendsen recalls.

The women's college distance has been moved back to 43 feet, but the extra few feat don't necessarily help the hitters. For someone of Granger's abilities, it simply means her pitches are going to break farther, and thus be almost more elusive.

The windmill delivery is such a natural, non-stressful way of throwing that pitchers like Michele don't really need much rest. Arendsen once pitched five games in one day, and Granger basically does all the pitching for her high school team.

She should, therefore, be able to throw hard for years to come. She might be really hitting her stride by 1992, when she conceivably would graduate from college and head into the Olympics. Softball may very well be added as a medal sport at the '92 Barcelona games, when Michele could elevate ``out'' to the status of ``ol'e'' in the Spanish vocabulary.

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