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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | DIANE PUCIN

From Afar, She Sees Error of U.S. Softball Team's Ways

September 22, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

SYDNEY, Australia — Julie Smith sits 7,500 miles away from here and can't help watching the train wreck that the U.S. women's softball team has become.

Smith watches second baseman Dot Richardson commit two errors in the 11th inning while the U.S. loses and thinks that should never have happened.

She sees Richardson's replacement, Jen McFalls, commit an error in the 14th inning while the U.S. loses again and knows that shouldn't have happened.

Please, Smith says, understand that she is not rooting against the U.S. women's Olympic softball team. It's just that she can't root for them, either.

Four years ago, Smith was the second baseman for that gold-medal U.S. team. She still has friends on the team, though she hesitates to name names, afraid that being labeled "a friend of Julie" will not do anyone any good.

A year ago, after Smith was left off the Olympic team, she filed for arbitration. She said that the selection process was unfair, that she was the best second baseman.

Three times an arbitrator agreed. But as the arbitration process went on and on, as a team bonded without Smith and players grew tired of it, Smith became an outcast. Eventually Smith and her attorney Danielle Carver settled for an apology from the American Softball Assn., which oversaw the selection process, and monetary compensation for legal fees and lost endorsement contracts.

Now Smith watches the Olympics from her parents' home in Glendora and doesn't know what to feel.

"I can replay the game in my head just by looking at the box scores," she says. "I told myself I wouldn't watch on TV but then I turn on swimming or gymnastics and the softball game comes on.

"I watch. I can't help it. What I'm seeing is what I've been saying for a long time, and that's probably why I'm not on the team. There are some major problems."

Smith watches Richardson, a transplanted shortstop, butcher second base. That was Smith's position, the one she took great pride in playing, in understanding every situation that might come up, and she wants to throw something at the TV.

"Dot used to be a great shortstop," Smith says. "That doesn't make you a second baseman. This team doesn't have a second baseman. Jen [McFalls] was a shortstop too.

"Playing second base is not an easy position. You've got to be confident. You've got to know what the next move is going to be. Dot's played the position for one year."

Some of her ex-teammates accused Smith, 31, of being a bitter, rejected athlete who couldn't face the reality of being cut. As this U.S. team, which had won 112 straight games and now has a three-game losing streak, falls apart, Smith is sad.

"No matter what," Smith says, "I feel for the players. Take Lisa [Fernandez]. She's taken it all on herself, the losing. I think she's feeling like she has to do it all."

Smith looks at the other Olympic teams, teams on which she has friends, and says the U.S. is getting what it deserves.

"The whole Olympic process is so messed up that good coaches don't want to deal with it.

"I look at all the other top countries--Japan, China, Australia--and they're doing the right thing. They made coaching changes, they had a changing of the guard. We went backward. We brought back our 76-year-old coach [Ralph Raymond] and nothing changed."

Wrong. Something changed. Smith lost her second base position. Now we all hold our breaths when a ball heads toward Richardson or McFalls.

Smith was defensive player of the year in the Women's Professional Softball League this summer. She committed two errors, one in the first game of the season. She had also been the fastest player on the U.S. team.

It's almost painful now watching 39-year-old first baseman Sheila Douty and the 39-year-old Richardson unable to take extra bases, unable to get to some ground balls. Speed is needed. The game is improving everywhere. Raymond and ASA officials apparently didn't notice that.

"What I did with the arbitration, hopefully it's a wake-up call," Smith says. "I've known for three years this team would struggle if things didn't change. I knew this would happen. But it's still hard to watch."

Smith asks about the vault controversy at women's gymnastics, about some swimming results, about beach volleyball.

Unabashedly, she says she truly loves the Olympics and loved nothing more than being an Olympian. It hurts her that there are still people who question her motives and talent.

"I would have made a difference on this team," Smith says.

That is not a cocky statement. It is the truth.

The Americans may still come back and successfully defend their gold medal. Smith won't feel bad if they do but she won't feel good either.

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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