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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

U.S. Looks Simply Grand as the Game Makes Its Entrance

Softball: Granger's fastball nearly impossible to hit in resounding 10-0 victory over Puerto Rico.

July 22, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS, Ga. — The Olympics formally, finally, opened its front door to women's softball Sunday morning.

At which point, the U.S. team decided to use the window.

"Check it out!" shouted shortstop Dot Richardson after dancing spread-armed around the bases late in a 10-0 victory over Puerto Rico. "We're here!"

As her line drive cleared the center-field fence for the first home run in Olympic history, Richardson said she had two thoughts.

The first: "It doesn't get any better than this."

The second: "It's gonna get better than this."

For nearly two steamy hours on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, the impudent U.S. players bounced, bashed, bullied, brayed, and generally behaved as if they were living some silly fantasy.

Which, they later admitted, they were.

"I had actual dreams about this day--yeah, sleeping dreams--about when they would let us in an Olympics," Richardson said. "To watch some of those dreams come true today. . . . I had some feelings out there that nobody has felt before."

Those feelings started with the first pitch by U.S. star Michele Granger, a fastball past flailing Lourdes Baez. Her teammates said they stood in the 90-degree heat with chills.

"The first pitch in Olympic history . . . check it out, that's trivia," Richardson said.

"That's a strike," Granger interrupted.

Her next pitch--another 70-mph underhand delivery from 40 feet--was even more impressive. It nearly decapitated Baez, sailing behind her head and crashing into a plexiglass portion of the backstop.

"If you throw it over their head they, uh, tend to wonder a little bit," she said.

Six innings later--the game was ended one inning early because of the 10-run mercy rule--Granger had completed a two-hitter with 10 strikeouts.

Not only couldn't they hit her, they could barely touch her. Of her 74 pitches, the Puerto Ricans put their bats on 16, or 22%.

"I wish they hadn't touched those," said Granger, who twice has struck out every batter in a seven-inning game. "I was sort of off today."

Oh really?

--Third baseman Lisa Fernandez stood halfway to home plate on nearly every pitch because she was so sure that Puerto Rico couldn't touch Granger.

--There was rarely a player in left field for the U.S. because right-handed Puerto Rican batters had virtually no chance to pull the ball.

--Puerto Rican batters were actually taking the pitch on full counts, as their only realistic chance of reaching base was via a walk.

And the U.S. has four more players who can pitch nearly as fast. Their strong hopes for a gold medal rest with those arms.

"Who is going to beat them?" asked Puerto Rican pitcher Lisa Martinez. "I don't know."

The U.S. team--with nine of 10 starters Sunday having Southland ties--has lost once in 112 international games since 1986.

That loss was a 1-0 defeat to China last year. The U.S. will play China on Saturday night in its final first-round match. Granger, formerly of Placentia and now living in Anchorage, will be ready.

"I could pitch again today," she said Sunday with a shrug.

Unlike major league stars, she doesn't even pack ice on her arm: "My coach doesn't want me going around after a game looking like Quasimodo."

She was speaking of Ralph Raymond, the oldest coach in the Games at 72. Of his team's few critics he said:

"At the end, when they're standing on the gold-medal stand, that's when I want to hear everyone talk."

Does that mean he is the first coach this week to guarantee a gold?

"Let's just say you've got to be confident, or you shouldn't be in the heat," he said.

Pitching isn't the only thing that has the U.S. team giddy. Its 10 runs were scored Sunday with only four extra-base hits.

The Americans manufactured one run after Kim Maher slowed in front of a grounder to shortstop in the first inning, distracting Puerto Rico's Aida Miranda enough that she made a bad throw, her first of three errors

Another rally was kept alive when Laura Berg was hit by a pitch for the second time in the game. Both plunks were below the waist.

"She has a way of getting her leg around so the ball can get it," Maher said. "We'll do anything to get on base."

Insiders say the only thing that can undo this group of long-anonymous stars is clubhouse jealousy. Aside from Granger, all of the players no longer in school have capitalized on their new recognition with endorsement deals, and she admits it was once a problem.

Granger, however, said she will not accept an endorsement from any manufacturer that will not include free inner-city clinics in her deal. Teammates are happy that after three decades of shouting, someone is finally listening.

The U.S. team was late to a postgame interview session Sunday, but it wasn't being chewed out by the manager or hiding in a training room. It was signing autographs in the stands and posing for photographs with the Puerto Rican team.

"This is not just for us, this is for everybody," said Richardson, an orthopedic surgeon at USC Medical Center. "We want to share this with everybody."

On this day, anyway, there seemed more than enough to go around.

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