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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | MIKE DOWNEY

Softball: Fernandez one strike away from gem before Brown's homer in bottom of 10th gives Australia 2-1 victory.

July 27, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — I have seen some wild ballgames in my day, but this one on Friday was in a league of its own.

That's because:

(a) The winning pitcher was a Tanya Harding, who (b) was in the Olympic Games, just like (c) that other Tonya Harding, even though (d) this one is a similarly controversial figure, who (e) got help from someone swinging a big stick, who (f) homered in the 10th inning on the final pitch, off (g) the greatest pitcher in the game, Lisa Fernandez, who (h) needed one more strike for a perfect game, even though (i) a runner was on base, because of a weird softball rule, whereupon (j) Joanne Brown, who went to UCLA with Fernandez, slammed one over the center-field fence, with (k) every fan in the stadium on his or her feet, giving (l) Harding, who also went to UCLA, a 2-1 victory for (m) Australia, host of the next Summer Olympics, 7,500 miles from UCLA, over (n) an American team that had won 111 of its last 112 international games, and (o) would have won this Olympic game on a home run, had the hitter not forgotten to step on home plate.

What was it Jack Buck said on national radio, after Kirk Gibson's 1988 home run? "I can't believe what I just saw!"

I can't believe what I just saw.

OK, OK, so it's softball. Don't bother me with details. This game had everything, except batters drooling tobacco. Too bad Mel Allen just died, because he should have broadcast it. He would have been raving, "How about that?" This was like watching Gibson, or Bobby Thomson, or Bill Mazeroski, or Joe Carter, winning the big game on the very last swing, only with the pitcher pitching underhand.

Underhand. Ha, that's a laugh.

Lisa Fernandez, she throws so fast, the umpire is calling "Strike two!" while she is already delivering strike three. She's like a Nolan Ryan in knee socks. Back in Long Beach, in high school, Fernandez threw 69 shutouts. For UCLA, she pitched 11 no-hitters. The woman's arm must have been manufactured at Lockheed. The last time I saw anything fire like this, it knocked down a building in Iraq.

Then again, you should have seen the stuff she threw Joanne Brown.

Two out in the 10th. USA 1, Australia 0.

On base: A designated runner, the only way any Aussie could get on all day.

At bat: Brown, 24, first baseman, 5 feet 8, 159 pounds, a resident of Canberra, as compact as Yogi Berra.

On the mound: Fernandez, 25, right-hander, 5-6, weight unlisted, slimmer than Fernando, faster too.

Strike one.

Looking for her 16th strikeout, Fernandez winds . . . delivers . . . and pulls the string on the softball, throwing a changeup on the outside corner that froze Brown like an Australian sno-cone.

Strike two.

Fans on their feet. Infield chatter behind Fernandez. Some comes from her third baseman, Dani Tyler, 21, the pride of River Forest, Ill., praying that her failure to step on home plate after a homer won't come back to haunt her. Some comes from her shortstop, Dot Richardson, 34, the surgeon from USC Medical Center, who sees more UCLA people here than she does in L.A.

"One more, one more, one more!" chatters Dr. Dot.

Next thing they know, Fernandez, Tyler and Richardson have their backs to home plate, watching Brown's homer head downtown.

The pitcher can't believe it.

Fernandez says later, "I can't believe I let the game slip through my fingers."

The hitter can't believe it.

"The greatest feeling of my life," says Brown, after stomping on home plate with both feet.

The goat can't believe it.

Tyler, called out for stepping over the plate rather than on it, says she is still trying to figure out "how the first-base umpire makes that call, when the plate umpire is standing right there."

As for Tanya Harding?

Well, she won't talk about her UCLA experience, where she pitched the school to the 1995 national championship without apparently spending much time in, uh . . . school. I don't think old Tanya fondly remembers those media folks who used expressions like "ringer" and "hired gun" after she gave back her softball uniform in Westwood. They made her feel like Clint Eastwood.

She sure did pitch a great game Friday for the gutty little Aussies.

If she wins a gold medal, maybe Tanya Harding can go to Disney World. The other one never did.

* DRAMATIC LOSS: The United States loses a run on a home run in the fifth inning and goes on to lose to Australia in 10 innings. S13

* DOT RICHARDSON: A profile of the shortstop from Sherman Oaks. S13

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