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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | LOOKING AHEAD

She Has Ruthless Outlook on Game

Softball: Lisa Fernandez dominates her sport, and she can't even play a complete game of catch with her fiance.

September 20, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BLACKTOWN, Australia — The most dominating player for one of the most dominating teams at the Olympics used to toss softballs to her mother sitting on a milk bucket in Lakewood.

"Then I gave her a glove. Then I added padding for the glove. Then a chest protector. Then a mask. Then . . ."

Lisa Fernandez sighs.

"Then I just couldn't throw it to her anymore."

So now she plays catch with her fiance, with a catch.

Says Michael Lujan, "For some reason, she will not throw me her drop pitch."

Says Fernandez, "I will not be responsible for knocking out my boyfriend's teeth."

She is known to Southern Californians as a UCLA standout and the best female softball player on the planet, but it's time to face facts and cite legends.

What she is, is Babe Ruth.

What some of these Olympians do for two weeks, she has done for a decade.

But the problem is, after three games here, Babe Ruth had had three bad days at the plate, had not yet had a chance on the mound, and her team was 2-1 with its 112-game winning streak demolished.

Which means her next Ruthian moment must occur Thursday here, when Fernandez takes the mound for the U.S. team for the first time in these Olympics, against an opponent that has haunted her since the last Olympics.

It will be the Babe against Australia in one of the major team showdowns of these Games.

The suburban train line past Toongabbie to Doonside will be crowded. The 8,500-seat suburban softball stadium will be full.

It will be midday madness, with the Aussies trying to do something nobody has done against Fernandez in two years.

Score an earned run.

They will also try to avoid something that happened an average of 15 times a game against Fernandez this summer.

Strike out.

Not to mention, they will try to hand her something she has had to accept only once in four years since they stunned her in the last Olympics.

A loss.

While they're at it, they will also try to beat someone who, at one point this summer, retired 122 consecutive batters, 100 by strikeout.

Although she went hitless in her first 13 Olympic at-bats, she led the team in hitting during a summer tour with a .462 average.

None of this is a misprint.

"Growing up, I never wanted to sit the bench," Fernandez says.

This intensity was obvious to her fiance several years ago on their second date.

"She said, 'Hey, I have to hit, do you mind?' " recalls Lujan, a Long Beach schoolteacher.

So off to a UCLA batting cage they went. Lujan's being such a good sport impressed her such that later she sent a gift to his office.

It was--how romantic--a signed baseball bat.

"I called her and said, 'Now I know what a girl must feel like when she gets flowers,' " Lujan recalls.

This is what life is like as Babe Ruth's boyfriend.

She sent him a signed glove on Valentine's Day.

They'll often play catch--with a padded glove for Lujan, of course--or he'll feed a pitching machine for her.

There is only one sporting thing they won't do together. Lujan will absolutely not attempt to hit against her.

From 40 feet away, her 70-mph fastball is the equivalent of a 100-mph fastball from a baseball pitcher.

"We decided I will never try to hit off her, because it will damage the relationship," Lujan says.

Life is interesting enough when Fernandez ends her evenings at home with an hour on a stationary bike.

Teammate Crystl Bustos, a huge hit here with three home runs in the first two games, recently lost 20 pounds because "I went on the Lisa Fernandez diet."

That involves long workouts that include, twice a day, riding a bike wound so tight the boyfriend can barely even pedal it.

"This being for all the marbles, I'm somewhat of a workaholic, I admit that," says Fernandez, 29. "I leave no stone unturned in preparation for this game."

That can be heard in her grunts on the mound, and seen in her stares from third base when she's not pitching.

Australia may well feel it in all ways Thursday.

Even though Fernandez led the U.S. to a gold medal in Atlanta, she has yet to forget one of the Games' most dramatic U.S. defeats in any sport.

After pitching a perfect qualifying-round game against the Australians through 9 2/3 innings, Fernandez gave up a home run to Joanne Brown and lost.

It was like a certain former New York Yankee striking out in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded.

Fernandez later used the gold medal to help her land endorsements and speaking engagements while working as a coach at UCLA and playing professionally in Japan.

But the defeat stuck with her.

Shortly afterward, Fernandez received a postcard with a photo of Brown being held on her teammates' shoulders.

"See you in Japan," read the inscription, referring to the future World Championships. There was no signature. Fernandez was furious.

She later hit a homer and pitched a one-hit shutout against Australia during a rain-soaked world title game that took more than six hours to complete.

(What is this, a column or a tall tale?)

"I guess I did show up," she said.

But she is still irritated at the Aussies.

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