WHEN TEAM USA softball coach Mike Candrea rubs his wedding ring, he is not putting on the bunt sign. He is, in his way, communicating with his wife, Sue, who died suddenly last month while traveling with the team. While in the dugout Candrea is immersed in the game, but when he leaves the field, his wife never leaves his thoughts. The den mother to his players both at the University of Arizona and in the Olympic program, Sue, 49, collapsed from a brain aneurysm in a Wisconsin airport near the end of the team's pre-Olympic trip, the one in which it stormed to a 53-0 record as if every opponent were the Washington Generals. She died two days later, on July 18.
Suddenly, strangely, there is a chasm in the soul of this spiritual man, yet not a single hole on his team. The U.S. squad can win with its speed (shortstop and leadoff hitter Natasha Watley was batting .600 through three games), with its brute power (in a 10--0 shutout of Australia on Sunday, catcher Stacey Nuveman crushed a three-run homer to center into a 29-mph wind) or with its brilliant pitching staff headed by aces Lisa Fernandez (who one-hit the Aussies) and Jennie Finch (who pitched three innings of hitless ball in a 7-0 win against Italy a day earlier). "We can score on home runs, and we can score even when the ball never leaves the infield," says Fernandez, who fanned 25 Australians in a memorable 13-inning loss in 2000 but got 15 outs without a single strikeout in her shutout last week.
Even in victory, however, Candrea's mind was on his loss. After the defeat of Australia, he walked to a fence to greet his children, Mikel, 24, and Michelle, 21. "It was tough to see my son and daughter after the game," he said. "There was a missing piece of a puzzle." --Michael Farber