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Amid Accusations She Is Being Selfish, Julie Smith Challenges Selection Process for Olympic Softball Team in Arbitration Case That Has Dragged on for Nearly a Year

July 26, 2000|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The joy was genuine when Dot Richardson hit the game-winning home run that gave her U.S. Olympic women's softball team a victory over China in the gold-medal game of the 1996 Olympics.

The celebration was loud and raucous. There were hugs and kisses, tears and laughter. Julie Smith, the second baseman, hugged Richardson, the shortstop.

The nation loved these gritty women who had fought for years just to have this moment, to have their sport welcomed into the Olympic movement. Richardson and Smith fought together for the same goal and triumphed with equal enthusiasm after their medals were won.

Four years later, Richardson speaks for nearly 10 minutes, nonstop, about Smith's selfishness.

Smith is brought nearly to tears as she ponders the silence she has encountered, the turned backs, the whispers from 15 women who had once been her friends and teammates.

With the 2000 Olympics less than two months away, it is uncertain which players will help the U.S. defend its gold medal.

A team was picked last September by the Amateur Softball Assn. Fifteen women and three alternates were selected. They have lived together since--training, traveling, playing games, becoming a team.

Eight 1996 Olympians made the team--Richardson, who is 38 now and an orthopedic surgeon; Laura Berg, a 25-year-old center fielder from Santa Fe Springs; first baseman Sheila Douty, a 38-year-old stepmother and stepgrandmother who lives in Diamond Bar; Lisa Fernandez, a 29-year-old pitcher and third baseman from Long Beach; Lori Harrigan, who will turn 30 during the Games, a pitcher from Las Vegas who was born in Anaheim; Leah O'Brien-Amico, 25, a right fielder from Chino Hills; 33-year-old pitcher Michelle Smith of Califon, N.J., and 22-year-old pitcher Christa Williams of Houston.

The three alternates from the 1996 team --Jennifer Brundage of Irvine, Jennifer McFalls of Grand Prairie, Texas, and Michelle Venturella of Indianapolis--also made the 2000 team.

In other words, veterans ruled.

But not in Julie Smith's case.

When envelopes were slid under the players' doors last September on the last day of a final Olympic trials camp, Smith opened hers and was stunned.

"I didn't make the team," she says now, still not believing what she is saying. "I wasn't even named an alternate."

The 32-year-old Smith, from Glendora, is immensely proud of the gold medal she won in 1996. She has been a national team member for 10 years. At the beginning of 1999, she was named one of the "elite 10," players chosen by the ASA as the nucleus of that year's national team.

Smith considered herself the best second baseman in the U.S. and still felt the same last summer when Richardson was moved to second by U.S. national and Olympic Coach Ralph Raymond.

Raymond had to make room for shortstop Crystl Bustos, a 22-year-old powerhouse hitter with a monster arm. Bustos, from Canyon Country, had played a season for the Akron Racers in the Women's Professional Softball League and was becoming a batting-practice attraction to rival Mark McGwire, at least among softball fans.

Smith was unhappy with her demotion and did not hide it. Still, she went to the trials at Midland, Mich., with 38 other players. After five days, Smith had hit for a higher average than any of the other second basemen, including Richardson, and had fielded more chances. Smith thought that the statistics were clear and that even though she and Raymond had never been friendly, it wouldn't matter.

Something mattered. Smith didn't make the team.

Within days, Smith, who had been the player rep to the U.S. Olympic Committee, filed for arbitration. Smith knew the rules. An athlete has the right to dispute an Olympic team selection if she believes the selection process has been unfair.

That was 10 months ago and nothing has been settled.

Three times now, an arbitrator has ruled that the ASA selection process was unfair. According to Smith's attorney, Danielle Carver, the ASA missed deadlines it was required to meet for filing its Olympic selection process with the USOC.

The ASA is argues that it selected the team based on two years of performance, which ended in Midland, but the arbitrator found that because of sloppy paperwork, the ASA should choose the team based on performance at the Midland camp.

"For whatever reason, the USOC didn't approve our selection procedures until [last] August," says Ron Radigonda, ASA executive director. "I think that's been the real crux of the problem, the submission of our data. We have clearly indicated all along that international events as far back as 1997 would be considered.

"Our athletes told us they did not want a one-weekend event to chose this team. Somehow this has gotten all turned around on us in arbitration."

Radigonda says there has to be some subjectivity in picking a team.

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