Softballs are not so soft anymore. Nor, as it turns out, are softball players. "I was up to bat in an exhibition game last summer, and the pitcher hit me," says Amy Chellevold, the University of Arizona's leadoff hitter. "The ball—a softball!—fractured my left ulna, and a surgeon had to insert a titanium plate in my forearm."
A titanium bat is one thing, but a titanium arm? Might that explain Chellevold's nearly completed assault on college Softball's career-hits record? At week's end she had 336 hits and needed only 16 more in the Wildcats' remaining 18 regular-season games to break the career mark of 351, set by South Carolina's Tiff Tootle from 1990 to '93. With 77 hits this season, she also led Arizona with a .453 average.
"My bionic arm?" says Chellevold, a first baseman from Thousand Oaks, Calif., with a laugh. "O.K., then how do you explain what Laura has done?"
Laura is shortstop Laura Espinoza, the Wildcats' other senior, who bats cleanup and whose arms are clement free. However, her feats remind folks in Tucson, where many are old enough to remember him, of Babe Ruth. Espinoza's 74 career home runs dwarf the previous NCAA record of 34 set by Liz Mizera of Texas A&M between 1985 and '88. Call Espinoza the Sultana of Swat. Through Sunday she had 26 homers this season, and her .436 average made her second on the team in hitting.
So what gives? "Not the ball anymore," says Arizona coach Mike Candrea. In 1987 the NCAA moved the mound three feet farther from the plate (to 43 feet) to give hitters more time to react to pitches, and in 1992 it switched from a cork-and-yarn ball to a rock-hard, solid polyurethane sphere. "The ball just jumps off the bat now," says Candrea. "I don't know why we still use the word soft."
Thanks primarily to the hitting of Chellevold and Espinoza, the Wildcats, who were 43-4 at week's end and ranked second in the nation, are swinging for a third straight NCAA championship. Only top-ranked UCLA, which was 31-2, would seem to stand in their way.
Chellevold's achievements are all the more remarkable because she originally enrolled at UC Santa Barbara on a volleyball scholarship. "I was too short to be a hitter in volleyball, so I played setter," says Chellevold, who has given up volleyball. "Now what have I become? A hitter."
Unlike Espinoza, who's from Wilmington, Calif., Chellevold had to relearn how to hit upon transferring to Arizona before the start of the 1992 season. "I naturally hit righthanded," says Chellevold. "But the coaches took one look at my speed and decided I'd be a slap hitter. They never let me bat righty again."
"Eighty percent of Amy's at bats are either slaps or bunts," says assistant coach Larry Ray, college Softball's slap-happy guru. "She has come close to perfecting the art of the short game."
Just as Espinoza has mastered the craft of the long ball. Which leaves us with one question: Would Chellevold also hold the NCAA career mark for runs scored (226) if she did not bat three spots in front of Espinoza, who also happens to be the game's alltime RBI leader (279)? "Probably not," says Espinoza. "And neither of us would have two NCAA championships."