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The most enduring two hours of the first week of the Atlanta
Olympics came on Tuesday night at the Georgia Dome, when Kerri
Strug's heroic vault capped a dramatic gold medal performance by
the U.S. women's gymnastics team. But the most unbelievable two
hours of the first seven days of competition came yesterday in a
cozy softball park in Columbus, Ga. You won't get any argument
about that from the 8,605 fans who packed Golden Park.

Here's what happened in Australia's 2-1, 10-inning upset of the
United States: An American not known for her power, third
baseman Dani Tyler, hit one of the longest homers in the Olympic
tournament, then--in her unabashed glee--cost her team the game
and her pitcher a perfect game by failing to step on home plate
after she rounded the bases. The U.S. pitcher, Lisa Fernandez,
had a perfect game for 9 2/3 innings. The hero for Australia,
Joanne Brown, had never homered off Fernandez in three years of
batting practice (they were teammates at UCLA) or in
international competition. But with the Aussies trailing 1-0 and
down to their last strike in the bottom of the 10th, Brown hit a
rope over the centerfield fence. With that one swing, a
potential 10-inning perfect game turned into a defeat. It was
the United States' second international loss in 115 games
stretching over a decade.

And wouldn't you know that the winning pitcher was Tanya Harding
(no relation to you-know-who). Harding is the hired gun who
spent a semester at UCLA in 1995 and returned to Australia
immediately after leading the Lady Bruins to an NCAA
championship. The Pac-10 put the program on one-year's probation
for misusing scholarships, and the NCAA may yet take away UCLA's
national title.

The Aussies lost twice to the U.S. at the 1994 world
championships, then went 0-6 against the Americans in an
exhibition tour Down Under last November. And with the best
softball pitcher in the world, Fernandez, throwing 76-mph
fastballs from 40 feet, did anyone really expect a different
result yesterday? Then again, when's the last time you saw
someone miss the plate on a home run trot?

With two outs in the fifth, Tyler ripped a fastball from Harding
over the centerfield fence. As she rounded third, Tyler feigned
shock while looking at the on-deck hitter, Laura Berg, who was
waiting near home to congratulate her teammate. Two steps before
she reached the plate, Tyler raised her arms to double-high-five
Berg, but in doing so she took her eyes off home, and her right
foot passed over it. Television replays showed that her foot
clearly missed the plate.

Australia appealed, and after a discussion with International
Softball Federation (ISF) director of umpires Merle Butler,
first base ump Michael Hornak called Tyler out. She may go down
as the Bill Buckner of fast-pitch softball, but Tyler was
keeping a stiff upper lip afterward. "I'm very upset," she said,
"but I won't whine about it."

The way Fernandez was pitching, Tyler's gaffe didn't weigh so
heavily on the U.S. at the time. But the game was still
scoreless after the regulation seven innings and remained so
after two extra innings. In the 10th the ISF's tiebreaker rule
took effect: A runner was placed on second base at the start of
each half-inning. In the top of the 10th, the U.S. sent out
Dionna Harris, and after first baseman Sheila Cornell singled up
the middle, Aussie centerfielder Haylea Petrie threw the ball
over third base and into a photo booth. Harris trotted home. The
Americans had their run.

In the bottom of the 10th, Kim Cooper waved feebly at an outside
pitch--strikeout number 15 for Fernandez--and Jocelyn Lester
bounced out to Tyler. When Brown fell behind 1 and 2 in the
count, the crowd stood and chanted "U-S-A! U-S-A!" Brown clubbed
the next pitch out of the park. "Pitching 101 says with two
strikes you don't throw it right over the plate," a shaken
Fernandez said afterward. "I probably overthrew it."

Said Brown, "Were they chanting? I kept my head in, swung and
got lucky, I guess."

The ball never got 15 feet off the ground. "If it wasn't gone,"
Fernandez said glumly, "I knew it'd knock the fence over."
Coming home, Brown leaped into the air and landed on the plate
with both feet. Stunned, the partisan fans didn't know what to
do. So they stood and cheered. The spent players exchanged
handshakes and hugs.

"Good hit, Jo Jo," Fernandez told Brown.

"You were great," Brown replied. Unbelievable.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN IACONO (2) Celebrating her fifth-inning home run prematurely, Tyler didn't watch her step (left), a mistake Brown did not repeat after her blast ended the game. [Laura Berg and Dani Tyler at homeplate; Joanne Brown jumping onto homeplate as teammates gather]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONOFernandez (right) was overpowering in setting down the first 29 Aussies she faced, but her old teammate Brown had the last laugh. [Lisa Fernandez pitching]

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above--Joanne Brown laughing with teammates]