Pitching has carried U.S. softball team, but Watley makes the squad go
Posted: Tuesday August 17, 2004 11:19AM; Updated: Wednesday August 18, 2004 3:24AM
For the USA Olympic softball team, Tuesday was another day, another collar.
At promptly 9:30 a.m. Lori Harrigan began serving goose eggs for breakfast to overmatched China as the American shutout streak in the tournament continued. If you are scoring (and you better be, because no one who faces the Team USA staff of Harrigan, Lisa Fernandez, Cat Osterman and Jennie Finch is), through the 4-0 Chinese yawner, U.S. pitchers have allowed no runs, just six singles and struck out 29 in 25 innings. They throw rises and drops and heaters and change-ups, the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalympics.
The pitchers make everyone stop ... and Natasha Watley makes Team USA go.
She would be the Rickey Henderson of softball -- except she speaks in sentences that don't need subtitles and gives answers that make perfect sense. The Team USA leadoff hitter took an 0-fer against China, but reached on an error and a walk and scored twice (giving her five runs in the four games) and stole a base. Her Mach 1 speed makes infielders, forced to handle the balls she slaps, look over-caffeinated.
"In this era of softball, Natasha is unique," said China coach Treshan McDonald, who used to lead the softball program at UNLV. "There have been some players who've slapped it like Natasha, but they haven't had her speed. She's probably one of the best ever in her role. She holds the position of offensive queen."
Indeed there is athletic royalty in her blood. Her father, Ed, is a cousin of both NBA great Willis Reed and Orlando Woolridge, who played 15 years in the NBA and Italy. When Watley, who led UCLA to the NCAA title in 2003, flew to New York to receive the Honda Award as the top female collegiate athlete, Reed telephoned Ed Watley and said, "That's the only athlete on your side of the family."
"Two NBA titles in the family," Ed Watley said as he watched from the Olympic Softball Complex, "and maybe one gold medal."
Natasha, 22, grew up in Orange County, Calif., the epicenter of American softball, and began playing at age five. Ed Watley taught his daughter, a natural right-handed hitter, to bat from the left side in order to take better advantage of her quickness. While the move initially robbed her of her power, it forced Natasha to learn to slap the ball around. She now is a Punch-and-Judy hitter -- with enough punch to have started the Olympic tournament with a double and triple against Italy. Because she manipulates a bat with so much dexterity, opposing the first and third baseman have to cheat in so close -- softball bases are 60 feet apart -- they can practically count her fillings. If she swings away, Watley can perform a Mizuno root canal. Said Watley, "I love to hit it down somebody's throat."
But Watley, batting .462, earned a place on her first Olympic team not with line drives but with sweet glove work at shortstop and happy slapping, an act of hitting that is counterintuitive. "There's an art to it," said Watley, who has completed her college eligibility but will return to UCLA to complete her degree in sociology. "You have to hit the ball late. When you're hitting away, the bat has to be out in front. Slapping the ball goes against the rules of hitting."
Watley, a rare African-American in her sport, is involved with the Major League Baseball's RBI program, designed to revive baseball programs in inner cities. Her father mentioned that if the USA -- winners of the two previous Olympic gold medals -- makes it a hat trick in Athens, his daughter might be invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a World Series game. When Natasha Watley was questioned about it, she frowned. There is a long way to go, even if nobody in softball makes 60 feet look so close.