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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BILL PLASCHKE

U.S. Diamond Glitter Has Turned Into Dust

What couldn't possibly happen to Fernandez and her U.S. teammates happens again against Australia.

September 21, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

BLACKTOWN, Australia — It couldn't happen again.

It wouldn't happen again.

Not to Lisa Fernandez, the best softball player in the world.

Not to the U.S. team, the best ever.

It couldn't.

It wouldn't.

But it did.

With a blast that shook an entire island.

Four years after Fernandez and her teammates were stunned by rival Australia when she allowed an extra-inning, game-winning Olympic homer, you'll never guess what happened this afternoon before a screaming, swaying, weeping Australian crowd.

Yep. Fernandez was beaten by an extra-inning homer.

In 1996, it was Joanne Brown, in the 10th inning, breaking up Fernandez' perfect game with a two-run homer to give Australia a 2-1 win.

Fast forward four years. But keep the same sad tape.

Today, it was Peta Edebone, in the 13th inning, breaking up Fernandez' one-hitter with a two-run homer to give the Australia a 2-1 win.

The hit was so stunning--considering Fernandez had struck out a team-record 25 and previously allowed only a ground single--that the Australians danced and hugged around home plate for many minutes afterward.

The similarity was so incredible, Fernandez stuck out her hands, forced a smile, and jogged quickly into the dugout.

Fernandez was late for the postgame news conference, a spot where two days ago she had openly wept because of her hitting struggles.

But moments later, the Lakewood kid walked in the door.

This time, there was no crying. It was like, the entire incident was too weird for tears.

"Sitting in the locker rom, I was thinking, it can't happen another time can it?" she said. "But it did."

She quickly made the point that the U.S. team has always remembered when thinking about that 1996 defeat.

"The one thing about Atlanta was, we won the gold," she said. "These are irrelevant to our goal to win the gold."

Well, yes, if they win their final two first-round games against New Zealand and Italy, they will still advance to the next round.

But face the ugly facts.

This team, after winning 112 consecutive games, has lost three in a row for the first time in history.

This team, after hitting 71 homers in a 60-game tour before the Olympics, has scored two runs in the last 40 innings.

"It's like this voodoo that's on us right now," teammate Christie Ambrosi said.

After Edebone hit the 1-and-0 pitch over the left field fence, the smack sounding even louder considering it was the first hard-hit ball in nearly four hours, it felt worse than voodoo.

"Again, it was a lesson learned," Fernandez said. "It will go in the memory bank."

The last time it happened, she said she didn't sleep for days, gold medal or not.

"It was a traumatic time in my life," she said.

The last time it happened, the Aussies rubbed it in by sending her a postcard of Brown being carried off by her teammates.

"I will never forget that," she said before today's game. "It's the past, but it happened, and I'll never forget that."

How much can one athlete take? We'll find out now.

"I would say if I was here, I would be pretty down in the dumps," Coach Ralph Raymond said. "This is a test."

Hasn't Fernandez already had enough tests?

Before today, she was amazingly hitless in 18 at-bats in these Olympics, despite being the team's best hitter.

"It's just another change to overcome adversity," she was saying before the game. "Another chance to test myself. It shows you what kind of people you are by how you react to situations like this."

She took the mound for her first pitching start of the series and acted like a boxer.

She jogged in place between pitches. Then she would bounce the resin bag on her hand, slam it to the ground, touch her mouth, and deliver.

Until the 13th inning, they couldn't touch her.

Four times she struck out the side.

In the 11th, after throwing a wild pitch and hitting a batter, she struck out two batters to end the inning.

For 12 2/3 innings, she was as good as she has ever been.

Then she was devastated.

Again.

"Anything worth wining is worth fighting for," she said. "We've got to keep fighting tooth and nail."

So it's a cliche.

So Lisa Fernandez can use a good cliche right now.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at her e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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