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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

U.S. Women Find Glory, Controversy

Softball: Richardson's game-winning home run is hotly disputed in 3-1 gold-medal winning victory over China.

July 31, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Dot Richardson wasn't thinking about Carlton Fisk--"Carlton Fisk?," she asked later--when the ball left her bat and arced toward the right-field foul pole, time stopping for a few seconds to savor the moment.

Was it fair or foul?

Unlike Fisk, who used body English and flailing arms to coax fair the most famous home run in World Series history--Fenway Park, 1975, Boston Red Sox versus Cincinnati Reds--Richardson started up the first base line and crouched to make sure she wasn't blocking the home plate umpire's view of the history she was making.

Fair or foul?

Right fielder Wei Qiang chased the ball to the fence, then watched it sail over her head and hook into controversy.

Qiang screamed, "Foul!" as the umpire yelled, "Fair!" and Richardson floated around the bases with her second-inning, two-run homer.

It was no big deal except that it turned out to be the difference in the the United States' 3-1, gold-medal victory over China before 8,750 at Golden Park.

"I knew it was fair," Richardson said. "I felt bad that they felt bad."

Oh, the Chinese felt bad.

Having just lost consecutive one-run games to the U.S., the Chinese braved black-flag heat conditions to defeat Australia in Tuesday's bronze-medal game, earning a gold-medal rematch with the Americans.

China was in no mood for funny stuff.

In the third inning, though, it got a bum call when umpire Lucy Carmichael called Zhang Chufang out at home plate on a double steal, Zhang clearly having beaten Richardson's relay throw from second.

So, while the game might have been great for softball, it did little for international relations.

China blew its top after the home run, interrupting play for 10 minutes to protest the call by right-field umpire Geralyn Lindberg of Sweden, which seemed to be supported by TV replays.

Chinese coach Li Minkuan and team representative Li Xiaosheng stormed the field in protest, claiming the ball had been foul.

Later, Li was a bit calmer, but still upset.

"We don't want to make too much comment on this," Li Xiaosheng said. "We want to take a look at the video."

The other Li, Minkuan, berated Lindberg throughout the game. In the third, when Kim Maher of the U.S. hit a ball 50 feet foul into the right-field seats, Li jumped out of the dugout and made a mocking gesture at Lindberg, circling his finger in the air.

His inference was clear: "Why didn't you call that fair too?"

After Richardson's blast, China fell apart, booting a grounder and a fly ball that allowed an unearned run in the U.S.' three-run second inning.

The Chinese were never the same, wilting down the stretch as they tried to lift their bats against U.S. pitchers Michele Granger, who pitched 5 2/3 innings, and Lisa Fernandez, who made a surprise late-game appearance.

How disheartening it must have been for China when it worked runners to second and third with two out in the sixth, only to watch U.S. Coach Ralph Raymond motion Fernandez into the game.

On Monday, Fernandez had shut out the Chinese on a two-hitter, striking out 13.

Doesn't she ever rest?

Fernandez threw her first pitch so hard it deflected off catcher Gillian Boxx's glove and to the backstop, allowing the only Chinese run to score.

Unmoved, Fernandez then struck out Wang Ying to end the inning, then retired the side in order in the seventh, striking out Chen Hong and An Zhongxin to end the game.

Fernandez flung her glove into the air and was mobbed on the dirt between the pitcher's mound and home.

The road to glory wasn't supposed to be this potholed, but maybe the struggle made it sweeter.

Granger, the winning pitcher, from Placentia Valencia High via Anchorage, Alaska, recalled training for the Olympics in frigid winters, throwing in a local church.

"It's 30 degrees below zero, and I've got to go to practice," she said. "Do I really want to get up, go to a church and throw? The reason was for this moment."

There was Fernandez, who bounced back from losing a perfect game and a decision to Australia last Friday to win Monday's medal-round qualifier before saving the most important game of her life.

"You start out with a challenge, it's a year ahead of you, but you chip away and finally realize your goal," Fernandez said. "It wasn't pretty, but we won, and that's what it's all about."

There was Raymond, the team's 72-year-old coach, who has undergone two heart bypasses to get to this moment.

But the game, the tournament, the moment, the sport, belonged to Richardson, the 34-year-old shortstop/orthopedic surgeon who put softball on the map with her 200-watt energy.

Today, Richardson will take a noon flight back to Los Angeles to resume her third year of residency at USC County Hospital. Thursday, Richardson will be assisting on a hand surgery.

It was Richardson who, 25 years ago, was denied a chance to play with her Little League team in Orlando and used the snub to become the greatest player in women's softball.

Richardson figured she would grow old before softball became an Olympic sport.

Richardson ended up with three home runs in nine Olympic games. In 61 previous games, she had hit two.

Her last home run is one she will never forget.

Nor will the Chinese.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Medalists / Softball

Women

Gold: United States

Silver: China

Bronze: Australia

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