Let's get one thing straight: These women are in a league of their own, but you will not find them in A League of Their Own. "This is not the damn movie with Madonna," says U.S. softball pitcher Michele Granger, of the sport that made its Olympic debut on Sunday. "We are not out there playing in skirts, catching the ball in a hat."
Nor do these softballers keep an Igloo-ful of Meister Brau beneath the bench, a sobering concept that even baggage handlers can't seem to grasp. "I can't tell you how many times in college I would have my UCLA travel outfit on, and a skycap would say, 'Oh, yeah, I play softball too. I'm batting .500 in my slo-pitch league,' " says Lisa Fernandez, a Team USA pitcher and third baseman who won two national championships with the Bruins. "And I would look at him and think, There is no way you can think that what you play and what we play is the same game."
These women play softball like Iraqi judges play hardball. The U.S. national fast-pitch softball team, which 10-run-ruled Puerto Rico on Sunday, 10-0, has an international record in the last 10 years of 110-1. That loss, 1-0 to China at the Olympic complex in Columbus, Ga., in August '95, ended a 106-game winning streak and was immediately avenged in the final of that tournament, when the U.S. shattered China 8-0. On the home front, from April 27 to July 4 of this year, Team USA won 63 of 64 exhibition games against various regional all-star teams. Christa Williams, an 18-year-old pitcher, missed the lone loss of this summer's pre-Olympic tour (to a team of Southern California stars) because she was attending her prom at Dobie High School in Houston. "I can't wait to get to college," she says of her forthcoming life as a UCLA freshman—and she isn't talking about playing softball for the Bruins.
For these women are well-adjusted, reasonably balanced human beings, doctors and scholars who happen to be athletes, and who are, as they see it, advancing the cause of womankind. Who needs passage of the Equal Rights Amendment when you have your own, unsurpassable ERA: 0.08 over 356 innings for the entire five-member staff on that 64-game pre-Olympic tour.
In other words they are essentially un-hittable. In softball the pitching rubber is only 40 feet from home plate, and long-striding pitchers actually release the ball from about 35 feet. Granger, to cite one example, has been clocked at 73 mph, giving batters virtually the same reaction time as they would have facing Randy Johnson throwing from 60'6" away.
Which is why, when former national-team pitcher Kathy Arendsen whiffed Reggie Jackson three times in a row in a 1981 exhibition, Mr. October reportedly forbade public showing of the videotape. That isn't to suggest that these softballers are big-league material. They are far too pleasant for that. "It costs ya 20 bucks now just to pahk ya cah at Fenway Pahk," says Worcester, Mass., native Ralph Raymond, Team USA's septuagenarian, hearing-aid-wearing, World War II-veteran head coach, who looks like the unholy offspring of Don Zimmer and Casey Stengel. "This team is a throwback. It's a throwback to the old days when we went out there with a taped bat and a taped ball and just ran around for hours, for no money, enjoyin' the game."
They certainly did that on Monday night, when the U.S. touched the Dutch for 10 hits in a 9-0 victory. And yet, somehow, this is one lock we did not pick. In a brief tango with insanity, this magazine predicted in its Olympic preview issue that the U.S. team would win just a bronze at these Games. "SI," says the 5'11" Granger, paraphrasing a certain Cleveland Indians ogre, "can kiss my gold medal." But she is smiling when she says it and quickly dissolves into laughter. That's the thing about these women. They are no parts Albert, and all parts belle.
Take Dot Richardson. At 34, the shortstop has fielded more softballs than the collective guest list of Larry King Live. This was not necessarily by choice. Growing up in Orlando, she wanted to play Little League baseball but was not allowed to. "Not unless I cut my hair," she says, "and called myself Bob."
Mercifully, her hair and her name were left unbobbed, and Richardson became a softballing prodigy, getting drafted into a women's professional league in Connecticut at 15 but choosing to retain her amateur status in case she could one day play in the Olympics, which was her ludicrous dream in 1976. Now, 20 years later, her hope-against-hopefulness paying dividends, she sees the faces of little girls illuminated at ball games. "I see a look in their eyes that they will never be the same again," she says, "that they now know they can be an Olympian. And that through softball they can receive an education and actually achieve a lot of their dreams."
Richardson used her UCLA softball scholarship as a rope ladder to Louisville Medical School. Now in her third year of orthopedic residency at the USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, she took a one-year leave of absence to prepare for the Olympics and is using her one month of vacation during the Games. (She is due back in the O.R. 36 hours after the gold medal game on July 30.) While holed up in Columbus, she has popped into the local Hughston Clinic and assisted on an arthroscopic knee surgery and a "capsular shift, for recurrent dislocation of a right shoulder." She did this simply because she has the energy reserve of Con Edison.