U.S. strikes gold China cries foul

Softball home run close to right-field pole prompts angry protest

Atlanta Olympics

July 31, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

COLUMBUS, Ga. -- The Olympic softball competition was supposed to be an American cakewalk, but the gold-medal game almost turned into an international incident.

The U.S. women's team won the gold as expected, but its 3-1 victory over China last night turned on what can only be described as a Mike Devereaux moment.

Shortstop Dot Richardson hit a game-breaking, two-run home run in the third inning that passed so close by the right-field foul pole that it wasn't clear whether it was fair.

Right-field umpire Geralyn Lindberg of Sweden immediately signaled home run, sending the pro-American crowd at Golden Stadium into hysterics and the Chinese team into histrionics.

The play was very similar to the famous Devereaux home run that defeated the California Angels and was debated for days in 1989. Most of the replays were inconclusive, but one angle appeared to confirm that the umpire made the right call.

"I knew it was fair," Richardson said. "I knew it was long enough, so I crouched down to make sure the home plate umpire could see it. It felt great, but I felt bad that they felt bad and didn't think it was a home run."

The Chinese players and coaches surrounded the umpiring crew in short right field, arguing and delaying the game for nearly 10 minutes. At one point, a nonuniformed member of the Chinese delegation came out of the dugout and shook his fist at one of the umpires.

Runs are so precious in fast-pitch softball that the call essentially decided the game, though the clearly flustered Chinese team allowed a third run in the inning on a throwing error and a dropped fly ball.

"We think you understand why we were upset," Chinese team leader Li Xiao-Sheng said through an interpreter. "We don't want to make any account. We want you to look at the videotape."

The Chinese team already had a beef. It appeared to score a run in the top of the inning on a double steal, but American catcher Gillian Boxx blocked the plate and home plate umpire Lucie Carmichael called leadoff hitter Zhang Chunfang out -- though it appeared that she got her foot through to the plate.

U.S. pitcher Michelle Granger was not threatened again until the sixth, when a two-out double by China's Liu Xuqing put runners on second and third and brought the tying run to the plate. U.S. coach Ralph Raymond turned the game over to pitching ace Lisa Fernandez, who brought home the only Chinese run with a wild pitch, but retired all four batters she faced.

Richardson, an orthopedic surgeon from Orlando, Fla., homered in the first game of the preliminary round and delivered the first softball shot heard round the world last night.

The Chinese protest threatened to tarnish the U.S. team's moment in the Olympic spotlight, but it took nothing away from the raucous World Series-like celebration that followed the final out. It was, after all, the softball equivalent of the World Series, and unlike the other one, it included teams from all over the world.

"My first thought is that this is just so awesome," Richardson said. "I'm so proud of everybody and I'm so happy for everybody. China has a great team. They all went down fighting."

It was a grueling day for the Chinese team, which defeated Australia in the bronze-medal game under black flag conditions (extremely hot and humid) and had to come back 30 minutes later and play against a fresh U.S. team.

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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