Let's get one thing straight: These women are in a league of
their own, but you will not find them in A League of Their Own.
"This is not the damn movie with Madonna," says U.S. softball
pitcher Michele Granger, of the sport that made its Olympic
debut on Sunday. "We are not out there playing in skirts,
catching the ball in a hat."
Nor do these softballers keep an Igloo-ful of Meister Brau
beneath the bench, a sobering concept that even baggage handlers
can't seem to grasp. "I can't tell you how many times in college
I would have my UCLA travel outfit on, and a skycap would say,
'Oh, yeah, I play softball too. I'm batting .500 in my slo-pitch
league,'" says Lisa Fernandez, a Team USA pitcher and third
baseman who won two national championships with the Bruins. "And
I would look at him and think, There is no way you can think
that what you play and what we play is the same game."
These women play softball like Iraqi judges play hardball. The
U.S. national fast-pitch softball team, which 10-run-ruled
Puerto Rico on Sunday, 10-0, has an international record in the
last 10 years of 110-1. That loss, 1-0 to China at the Olympic
complex in Columbus, Ga., in August '95, ended a 106-game
winning streak and was immediately avenged in the final of that
tournament, when the U.S. shattered China 8-0. On the home
front, from April 27 to July 4 of this year, Team USA won 63 of
64 exhibition games against various regional all-star teams.
Christa Williams, an 18-year-old pitcher, missed the lone loss
of this summer's pre-Olympic tour (to a team of Southern
California stars) because she was attending her prom at Dobie
High School in Houston. "I can't wait to get to college," she
says of her forthcoming life as a UCLA freshman--and she isn't
talking about playing softball for the Bruins.
For these women are well-adjusted, reasonably balanced human
beings, doctors and scholars who happen to be athletes, and who
are, as they see it, advancing the cause of womankind. Who needs
passage of the Equal Rights Amendment when you have your own,
unsurpassable ERA: 0.08 over 356 innings for the entire
five-member staff on that 64-game pre-Olympic tour.
In other words they are essentially unhittable. In softball the
pitching rubber is only 40 feet from home plate, and
long-striding pitchers actually release the ball from about 35
feet. Granger, to cite one example, has been clocked at 73 mph,
giving batters virtually the same reaction time as they would
have facing Randy Johnson throwing from 60'6" away.
Which is why, when former national-team pitcher Kathy Arendsen
whiffed Reggie Jackson three times in a row in a 1981
exhibition, Mr. October reportedly forbade public showing of the
videotape. That isn't to suggest that these softballers are
big-league material. They are far too pleasant for that. "It
costs ya 20 bucks now just to pahk ya cah at Fenway Pahk," says
Worcester, Mass., native Ralph Raymond, Team USA's
septuagenarian, hearing-aid-wearing, World War II-veteran head
coach, who looks like the unholy offspring of Don Zimmer and
Casey Stengel. "This team is a throwback. It's a throwback to
the old days when we went out there with a taped bat and a taped
ball and just ran around for hours, for no money, enjoyin' the
They certainly did that on Monday night, when the U.S. touched
the Dutch for 10 hits in a 9-0 victory. And yet, somehow, this
is one lock we did not pick. In a brief tango with insanity,
this magazine predicted in its Olympic preview issue that the
U.S. team would win just a bronze at these Games. "SI," says the
5'11" Granger, paraphrasing a certain Cleveland Indians ogre,
"can kiss my gold medal." But she is smiling when she says it
and quickly dissolves into laughter. That's the thing about
these women. They are no parts Albert, and all parts belle.
Take Dot Richardson. At 34, the shortstop has fielded more
softballs than the collective guest list of Larry King Live.
This was not necessarily by choice. Growing up in Orlando, she
wanted to play Little League baseball but was not allowed to.
"Not unless I cut my hair," she says, "and called myself Bob."
Mercifully, her hair and her name were left unbobbed, and
Richardson became a softballing prodigy, getting drafted into a
women's professional league in Connecticut at 15 but choosing to
retain her amateur status in case she could one day play in the
Olympics, which was her ludicrous dream in 1976. Now, 20 years
later, her hope-against-hopefulness paying dividends, she sees
the faces of little girls illuminated at ball games. "I see a
look in their eyes that they will never be the same again," she
says, "that they now know they can be an Olympian. And that
through softball they can receive an education and actually
achieve a lot of their dreams."
Richardson used her UCLA softball scholarship as a rope ladder
to Louisville Medical School. Now in her third year of
orthopedic residency at the USC Medical Center in Los Angeles,
she took a one-year leave of absence to prepare for the Olympics
and is using her one month of vacation during the Games. (She is
due back in the O.R. 36 hours after the gold medal game on July
30.) While holed up in Columbus, she has popped into the local
Hughston Clinic and assisted on an arthroscopic knee surgery and
a "capsular shift, for recurrent dislocation of a right
shoulder." She did this simply because she has the energy
reserve of Con Edison.
When not taking time off from softball to perform surgery, she
does the opposite. At home in Sherman Oaks, Calif., Richardson
created a crude batting cage, using a tee and a large net, in a
bedroom of the third-floor apartment she shares with Fernandez.
She would come home from the hospital in some small hour of the
night and, with each swing, kiss softballs and her security
deposit goodbye. Richardson would then fall asleep and have
genuine dreams--"sleeping dreams"--of homering on the first
pitch of her first at bat in the Olympics, though she is not a
home run hitter. She woke one morning and found an anonymous
note taped to the door. "If you're going to train for the
Olympics," it read, "please do it at a decent hour."
"It was sarcastic," says Fernandez. "Nobody knew we really were
training for the Olympics."
To look at their day jobs, the notion simply wouldn't occur to
you: For five years Michele Smith has taught English to Toyota
employees in Kariya, Japan. She speaks Japanese, loves the Asian
culture and only occasionally pitches in Japan's industrial
softball league. The fact that she pitches at all is a
remarkable feat in its own right. Exactly 10 years ago this past
Sunday, while her father was driving her home to Califon, N.J.,
from an oral surgeon's appointment, the sleeping Smith was
thrown from the truck when her door opened on a turn. She
careered into a roadside post, chopped off part of her elbow
bone and tore the triceps from her left arm--her pitching arm.
"It was like losing my identity," she says. Smith resolved then
to broaden her horizons, not knowing that she would do so
literally and live in another hemisphere.
"If you'd have asked me five or six years ago, I'd have thought
I'd be a thoracic or cardiovascular surgeon by now," she says.
"But I realized that the central theme of what I wanted to do
was to help people and make a difference in lives. On the field,
I can help little kids. It might not be in an O.R. suite, but to
put your hands on their shoulders and see their eyes light up
and hear them say they want to be like me someday, that's my
proudest moment as an athlete."
Likewise, children can look to Sheila Cornell, a double major in
psychology and kinesiology at UCLA who achieved her master's in
physical therapy from USC with a 3.96 GPA. Granger graduated
from Cal-Berkeley with a double-major in history and mass
communications. "I'd like to work for a publisher," she says,
"and read books all day."
"These women are all well-educated," says Richardson, who hit a
home run to dead centerfield in her fourth Olympic at bat on
Sunday. "And that's a reflection that we know, as women, that
the farthest we can go in athletics is to get a scholarship, and
with it an education, and then be a contributor to society for
the rest of our lives."
So, which is the real Dream Team? Says Richardson, "I guess it
depends on what your dream is."
Over 10 days in a genuinely global competition, members of the
U.S. softball team are likely to become champions of the world.
But win or lose, they say, they will champion the world. "There
have been a lot of complaints that these Olympics are very
commercial," says Smith, "and that's going to happen whenever
professional sports get involved. But we are all amateurs. We do
not get paid to play anywhere. To me, money is not what makes
the world go around. My happiness is not based on my bank
account. Sometimes, I'll be on the mound and step back and think
that there are people lying on operating tables right now, with
their chests cracked open, and someone is reaching in with their
hands, working on their heart."
And it's nice to know, isn't it? These days, when everyone seems
to have their hands on your wallet, there are still people
reaching in with their hands, working on your heart.