Women's Softball: Safe at Olympics' Home Plate

In its sparkling diamond debut at the Games, China swallows a tough loss to the US home team

Forget Mudville and Mighty Casey. This was Columbus, Ga., and the United States' women's Olympic softball squad - the Dream Team of the diamond. There was no way this group was going to "strike out" in front of a patriotic crowd in Golden Park.

This was the championship game of a softball tournament folks, and one Don Porter had been waiting for for more than 20 years.

Porter, the president of the International Softball Federation as well as executive director of the sport's US governing body, lobbied tirelessly to get the Olympic brass to listen and to recognize that softball belonged under the Olympic big top. On June 13, 1991, the good news finally came: women's softball would make its debut at the Centennial Games.

So Tuesday night's title game in which the US scored a 3-1 victory over China was sweet not only for the Americans, who have been virtually unbeatable in the 1990s, but a triumph for the sport itself.

During the medal presentations, which appropriately occurred under a big yellowish moon that resembled a well-used softball, Porter distributed a sunflower-accented bouquet to every member of the three top teams, Australia, the US, and China.

One could almost sense the quiet pride he had in seeing so many accomplished and dedicated players receive their Olympic due. "Some may say this was an individual accomplishment," he said of softball's Games status. "But, like the sport itself, nothing is accomplished without teamwork."

It was not Porter's job to embrace the players, but he did sneak in at least one hug, throwing his arms around US shortstop Dot Richardson, whose high-energy personality is very reminiscent of tennis great Billie Jean King. Great mutual respect spilled from from this gesture.

Richardson wears No. 1, and symbolically it fits. She is a born leader, an orthopedic surgeon in her third year of residency at the University of Southern California Medical Center as well as perhaps the best shortstop to have ever played the game.

Before the gold-medal contest, she came onto the field wearing a grin that wouldn't quit and pointing and waving to people she knew among the 8,500 spectators. And it appeared she knew many.

Richardson is the Everywoman of her sport, an individual who carries the hopes and dreams of all her softball playing sisters. "I feel through me, everyone from the past can live this [Olympic] experience because this is not just about Dot Richardson or this team," she says, "this is about all of them also."

A native of Orlando, Fla., she was recruited to play on a Little League baseball team at age 10, but she was told she would need to cut her hair and call herself Bob. That was acceptable, and quickly she took up softball.

Years later the sport was added to the Games as a means of increasing female participation.

Richardson won her first gold medal as a member of the 1979 US Pan American Games. Poetically, she hit a two-run homer in the Olympic's softball finale that opened the scoring and provided the US with all the runs it needed.

The blast was hotly disputed by the Chinese team. Richardson's shot appeared to glance off the edge of the vertical, right-field foul marker before dropping over the innovative breakaway fence.

The chain-link fence yields if a player crashes into it. After Richardson's clout, however, the Chinese probably wish the Great Wall had stood in its place, 200 feet from home plate.

The Chinese, in their sparkling-white uniforms, knew that beating the US was an uphill battle under the best of circumstances, and this was no ideal situation.

For one, the crowd was heavily pro-American. Secondly, the US has what many believe is the best and deepest staff of windmilling pitchers in the world, and since this was a no-tomorrow situation, manager Ralph Raymond could use all of them if need be (in fact Michele Granger and Lisa Fernandez combined to toss a four-hitter). And finally, China had to play the US almost immediately after playing in a sauna-like playoff game against Australia as part of a confusing format that probably should be changed before the next Olympics.

The US came out fresh as a daisy, while China had to regroup quickly to face the same rival that had beaten them only the day before in a 10-inning defensive struggle. The rematch was an interesting study in varying national approaches.

The US, aided by Title IX-generated college opportunities, has millions of female players. China, on the other hand, has barely 200 players on eight provincial and city teams that feed into their national squad.

Some of these athletes are basically reassigned from other sports. The current team includes a former speed skater, a former javelin thrower, and a former volleyball player.

If the Olympic softball tournament seemed detached from the rest of the Games in Atlanta, some 100 miles away, no one was complaining. The sport was the toast of Columbus, which spent $1.8 million to renovate a gem of a ballpark along the banks of the Chattahoochee River.

When it was a minor ballpark, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Henry Aaron had all played here. In recent years has been home to the Columbus RedStixx, an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians.

For the past two weeks, though, you might say it was the house that Dot Richardson and all the champions of the past built.

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