Now we know: There is crying in softball.
The most powerful team in Athens, indomitable as it steamrollered to a gold medal, never looked vulnerable until after pitcher Lisa Fernandez, the best player in the sport for almost a decade, notched the last out in Monday's 5--1 victory over Australia in the final. The players burst into a freshet of pent-up tears, some shed in the joy of the moment but many more in memory of coach Mike Candrea's wife, Sue, who died on July 18 after suffering a brain aneurysm. The raw emotion was as powerful as the home run that Crystl Bustos slugged 300 feet into a stiff breeze in the third inning, an extraordinary celebration played out before IOC president Jacques Rogge and 4,219 paying customers at the Olympic Softball Stadium.
There simply was nothing prosaic about this U.S team. The Americans manhandled Australia three times, and the only run that was scored against them in the tournament came after 54 2/3 innings of nearly impeccable softball. Fernandez was the wizard against Oz, winning all three games, while in the finale Bustos went very deep twice, catcher Stacey Nuveman homered and shortstop Natasha Watley vacuumed up every in-between hop.
"Absolutely," Canada coach Mike Renney said when asked whether the U.S. had the best softball team ever. His squad had just suffered a mercy-rule, round-robin loss to the Americans, so his opinion was valued. "They're the fastest team ever and have more power than they've ever had. And they have pitching and coaching."
The uniforms said Australia and Japan and China, but Team USA's opponents all looked suspiciously like the Washington Generals. In nine Olympic games the U.S. outscored its opposition 51-1; four were stopped because of the mercy rule. The Americans batted .343, .107 higher than their opponents.
Team USA may have been too good for its own long-term good. Softball has much to recommend it--no Rotisserie leagues, for one thing--but total U.S. domination could turn off a wary IOC, which has not guaranteed a slot for the sport after 2008. Candrea argues that the Olympics "are about raising the bar," and that to take that bar and whack the Americans on the head with it simply because they have been so superb would be penalizing excellence rather than rewarding it.
From the start the U.S. players were the rock stars of these Olympics, a veritable Lilith Fair with better stuff. Martina Navratilova and Andy Roddick requested photos with them. As the U.S. athletes gathered for the opening ceremonies, the men's basketball team momentarily abandoned its self-absorption to acknowledge them. When LeBron James offered to bet lefthander Lori Harrigan that he could get a hit off her, Harrigan said, sure, she'd bet her Nike contract against his, which brought the banter to a halt. "I've seen [a video] of him striking out in slo-pitch," Fernandez said of James, after her 5-0 semifinal win over the Aussies on Sunday. "He needs to start [hitting] off a tee first--elevate his game."
The Americans did just that after losing three straight games in the 2000 Olympic round-robin. Following those Games the fences were moved back 20 feet, to 220 in the corners--creating more space for bloop hits on the compact diamond--and Candrea began emphasizing small ball. The new U.S. coach began with Watley, a jailbreak each time she got on base. The lefthanded-batting leadoff hitter, who had a .467 on-base percentage and stole four bases in Athens, is the slap-happy mistress of the 10-foot single, tapping a ball and racing 60 feet down the line as if she'd heard a starter's pistol. She scored eight runs, more than four teams in the tournament, with the redoubtable Fernandez driving her home two times from the cleanup spot and number 3 hitter Bustos doing so three times.
Twelve years and 120 pounds ago Bustos was a mostly lefthanded slap-hitter, too. Now, batting strictly from the right side, she is softball's most feared slugger. The moon-faced third baseman topped all Olympians with five home runs. "She's the Babe Ruth of softball," U.S. pitching coach Ken Eriksen says. "It's funny. Everybody sees Jennie [Finch, the pitcher named by People as one of its 50 Most Beautiful People in May] and wants a picture with her. But softball players, men or women, they want a picture with Babe Ruth."
Even with the mound pushed back three feet from the count-the-hitter's-fillings distance of 40 feet in 2000, softball remains a pitcher's domain. Candrea had the luxury of a four-woman rotation of Fernandez, Cat Osterman, Finch and Harrigan that would be unparalleled unless, Eriksen suggests, you toss the four 20-game winners on the 1971 Baltimore Orioles into the discussion. The Americans all threw in the mid-60s--the equivalent of 95 mph from a baseball rubber--with pitches that hopped, dipped and did pretty much everything else but turn right on red. Fernandez, mostly a Koufax-like two-pitch, drop-rise pitcher, baffled the Aussies with a 40 mph changeup, while Osterman, a lefty with preternaturally long fingers, proved herself as the sport's premier spin pitcher. They all can spot four pitches except Finch, who has a fifth, a screwball. Naturally, she would stick out. "Yeah, we heckle her a little," Bustos says.
Baseball and softball people talk a lot about a player's makeup; in Finch's case, they're talking about MAC, her brand. That isn't lampblack, it's eye shadow, something that appears to be in the pink or salmon family. That's the deal with someone equally comfortable in the Sports and Style sections. Finch has it all: offers to pose for Playboy (she has declined), segments on This Week in Baseball, her own website and a passel of endorsements. Blessedly her team was unaffected by the potentially uncomfortable group dynamic that could have evolved from having a crossover star in its midst, especially one who pitched just two games in the round-robin. There was only unstinting praise for the ubiquitous Finch, who protested after the tournament, "I'm not a celebrity. I'm just a girl trying to win a gold medal."
If the U.S. players were sorority sisters, Sue Candrea was the house mother. First baseman Leah O'Brien-Amico, who had known her since 1992, says, "Sue was the one who could keep it real." The players paid tribute to Sue during the Olympics by wearing black wristbands with the initials SC, but as reserve Amanda Freed put it, "Honestly, I think we honored Sue by just playing the way we did."
Almost five weeks after losing Sue, Mike won the gold. You cannot offer to trade one for the other; there is a mercy rule in softball, none in life. But his wife of almost 28 years was the spirit that wreathed this team as much as the laurels that ultimately wreathed their heads. Certainly she never strayed from her grieving husband's thoughts. After the second game of the Olympics, Candrea handed a reporter a laminated card. There was a picture of Sue on the front and, this passage, from First Corinthians (9:24-25) on the back: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who goes into the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.