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ATHENS 2004

Softball Team Is Above the Flaw

U.S. completes unbeaten run to third consecutive gold medal, but Australia scores a run. Pitcher Fernandez wins it for the coach.

August 24, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The losing team made the news Monday in Olympic softball's gold-medal game. It scored a run.

With Crystl Bustos hitting two shots that would have dented the outfield fence had they not sailed over it, and with the international queen of softball, Lisa Fernandez, pitching a four-hitter and diving home to score a run, the United States women did what anybody with two eyes could see they were going to do. They won -- easily.

They beat Australia, 5-1, for their third consecutive Olympic gold medal, keeping alive a run of dominance that has made them No. 1 in the world for 18 years.

And because of their excellence, they put the sport they love so dearly, play so beautifully and have promoted so feverishly, in Olympic jeopardy.

So when Stacey Porter of Australia singled across Sandra Allen in the sixth inning, producing the first run scored against the United States in this Olympic tournament, Don Porter probably breathed a sigh of relief.

Porter, president of the International Softball Federation, sold the International Olympic Committee on putting his sport into the Games, and now it's his job to keep it there. That's no easy task.

If the U.S. team, from the country of the ISF president, shuts out the rest of the world for an entire Olympics, in a sport that is pretty much ignored in Europe, Porter might anticipate questions from IOC members, most of them European, along the lines of, "Who needs this?"

That's why the run Australia scored, ending a streak of shutout innings by the U.S. that included 49 in the Olympics and totaled 75 2/3 when adding in their pre-Olympic tour, might well have represented one small step for the future of softball. Of course, the U.S. team was thinking about none of that when it finally clinched the victory.

The team's coach, Mike Candrea, had lost his wife to an aneurysm only weeks ago.

Candrea, a quiet man who had taken over the program after the team had stumbled to a gold medal in Sydney, coming back from three losses in the preliminary rounds, had driven them as they had never been driven before.

"I told them two things," Candrea said. "That they could be great, leave a legacy. And that they could be dominant."

In the end, they were all of that. And the tough guy who'd driven them to it needed more hugs than they did.

Candrea told the gathered press that he had rubbed his wedding ring throughout the game, and said that, although he seldom dreamed, he'd dreamed of his wife, Sue, Sunday night.

"She told me to chill," he said. "That was Sue."

Fernandez, sitting nearby, struggled to hold her emotions in check when she said, "I decided that I would play the best softball I could, to help this man get through it and at least bring him a gold."

That Fernandez was even on the mound was a surprise. She had done her job the day before, shutting out Australia in the gold-medal qualifying game. The assumption was that the new marquee pitcher on the team, Jennie Finch, was being saved for the final. But Candrea handed the ball again to the 33-year-old Olympic veteran.

Fernandez struggled at first, allowing an unheard-of two hits in the first inning before getting Allen to bounce out to Bustos at third. No runs, no harm.

The focus shifted quickly. Leah Amico singled sharply and Bustos sent a shot toward the scoreboard in right-center field. Fortunately, it missed as it cleared the fence or there might have been electrical damage.

Fernandez then singled, advanced to third and scored in a way that typified everything about her. Kelly Kretschman's single had brought a throw to the plate to keep Fernandez at third. And it did, until the ball squibbed away from the catcher about 10 feet down the first base line. Fernandez dashed toward the plate and beat the throw with a headfirst, dirt-in-your-mouth slide.

That made it 3-0 and two innings later, Bustos led off with a first-pitch rocket to left that cleared the fence by 10 feet, landed about 300 feet away and rolled another 150.

Later in the inning, catcher Stacey Nuveman hit a long drive to right field that was gone. Moments later, so was fabled Australian pitcher Tanya Harding, denied a gold again by the Americans.

That left one last drama. Would Australia score?

Finally, in the Americans' ninth game, the margin of inches went against them.

With two out in the sixth, Allen lofted a bloop down the right-field line. Right fielder Kretschman dived, but the ball went off her glove for a double. Then Porter smashed a single past Bustos at third.

An inning later, after four years of wondering if the world had caught up to them, and 10 days of proving that it hadn't, the U.S. women earned their place on the highest step on the medals platform.

There were 15 players, seven to the left of Fernandez and seven to the right. When it was time to step from ground to platform, they joined hands, but one took the first step.

It was the player in the middle, the leader, Lisa Fernandez.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Three for the Money

1996 ATLANTA

* U.S. record: 8-1, Outscored opponents, 38-7

* Average runs: 4.2

* Average runs allowed: 0.8

2000 SYDNEY

* U.S. record: 7-3, Outscored opponents, 25-7

* Average runs: 2.5

* Average runs allowed: 0.7

2004 ATHENS

* U.S. record: 9-0, outscored opponents, 51-1

* Average runs: 5.7

* Average runs allowed: 0.1

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