Even their hair looks strong. They've got big, long knotted ropes of it, ponytails down their backs, thick as steel cables. It's not often you see utter world domination anymore, but the U.S. softball team has offered a rare view of it. Through eight straight shutouts, delirious, shirtless Americans have bobbed in the sun-filled bleachers to "Woolly Bully."
Let's just say that it's a good thing that sour, frail, complaining Russian Svetlana Khorkina doesn't play softball. It's one thing to pick a fight with 16-year-old hummingbird gymnast Carly Patterson. I dare say we wouldn't hear quite so much of Khorkina's lip if she had to go up against third baseman Crystl Bustos. After watching Bustos drive in a couple of runs against Australia as the Americans completed yet another shutout, 5-0, to advance to the gold medal game, I can cheerfully report that Bustos's braid is bigger than Khorkina.
You don't want to mess with Bustos. Or with pitcher Lisa Fernandez, that wad of brunette tucked under her visor, skipping and kicking her red cleats in the dirt, as she sends batters to the chiropractor with her change-up, a wavering apparition of a pitch that goes in more directions before it crosses the plate than a moth. Then there's Jennie Finch, all 6 feet 1 of her, throwing the heat at 65 mph from her huge windmill windup, a skein of hair flying out behind her like a spear.
Last week, LeBron James ran into Finch at a Nike party and playfully suggested that he could handle her at the plate. Here is Fernandez's reply: "I thought it was pretty funny that he went there," Fernandez said. "We went to a Nike party and they had a tape of LeBron playing softball, and he struck out in slow pitch. He needs to start with the T-ball first. Then we'll talk."
The Americans' performance here has been so comprehensively, thoroughly great in every phase of the game that they're being called, by male sportswriters no less, the female version of the 1927 Yankees. It's not a ridiculous statement. After all, the effect of a softball hurled from 43 feet at 65 mph is not unlike that of a 90 mph fastball from a mound 60 feet 6 inches away.
Let's review just a few of the Americans' stats in this tournament. Five of their eight games have been one-hitters. In four of them, the mercy rule had to be invoked. They have a 0.00 ERA while they're hitting .344. They've outscored opponents, 46-0, with pitchers giving up just 14 hits and 10 walks in 49 innings.
But here is the most impressive number of all. Not only have the U.S. women refused to give up a run in eight games. They've only allowed two runners to reach third base in the entire tournament. "The bases are very precious to us," Fernandez said. "We're very stingy in allowing people on the bases. Bustos, the last thing she wants is to see someone standing next to her at third base. That is her base. We take it personal. Same thing at home base. Stacey Nuveman is not letting anyone get in there without a fight."
Their victory over Australia on Sunday in the semifinals was a typical outing. Against a power-hitting team that is without doubt the second-best one here, Fernandez pitched a three-hitter. She kept the Aussies guessing with junk that turned into infield dribblers or popups. It was also Fernandez who gave the Americans a 1-0 lead with an RBI double in the fourth.
You don't want to fall behind against this group, especially not early in the order. Every American who stepped to the plate from then on must have looked like a huge bronzed version of Athena. In the fifth inning, here came 5-10 shortstop Natasha Watley, who has 10 infield hits. Aussie pitcher Melanie Roche was so tentative on the mound that Watley's bunt froze her completely and she couldn't make the throw to second. "It's my job to wreak havoc out there," Watley said later.
Now here came 5-9 first baseman Leah O'Brien-Amico, with a single to load the bases. Next up was Bustos, who is 5-7 and about 200 pounds, and who promptly smacked a two-run single. Now here came Fernandez again, with an average of .550 in the tournament. Roche, by now totally unnerved, hit her with a pitch. Now here came the 6-foot catcher, Nuveman, with a sacrifice fly. Kelly Kretschman's home run in the sixth inning undid the Aussies once and for all.
It was the USA's 78th straight victory in international play, and a 79th and its third consecutive Olympic gold medal seemed certain. Although the Americans, with a relentlessly good attitude, refused to treat it as a foregone conclusion. "Who cares if you hit 1.000, if you lose?" O'Brien-Amico asked. "You don't let that get in your head. We haven't had our best game yet."
Should the Americans win another gold, the question will be asked: Just how great are they? But the better question is, why? Why this team? The answer seems to be a combination of attitude and wherewithal. It used to be that a female softball player could expect to get a college scholarship out of the sport, and then she could expect to get a job in a bank, or selling insurance. Now with increased funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee, players like 33-year-old Fernandez can make the game their full-time calling -- and they can stay together, in a cohesive program, and play the game year-round. The NBA might take a lesson from them.
But oddly, the Americans' greatness may not earn them recompense in the larger world of the Olympics. Other countries find their one-sided results so tiresome that there has been some discussion that softball doesn't belong in the Games, because it's too much of an American specialty. Their reward could be to see their sport discarded. "They've set their minds to raising the bar," said Coach Mike Candrea. "That's what the Olympics are supposed to be all about. I'd hate to see us get penalized for that."
The greatness of this team hasn't been universally admired, nor has it been examined, as it should be.