Playing Hardball

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The joy was genuine when Dot Richardson hit the game-winning home run that gave her U.S. Olympic women's softball team a victory over China in the gold-medal game of the 1996 Olympics.

The celebration was loud and raucous. There were hugs and kisses, tears and laughter. Julie Smith, the second baseman, hugged Richardson, the shortstop.

The nation loved these gritty women who had fought for years just to have this moment, to have their sport welcomed into the Olympic movement. Richardson and Smith fought together for the same goal and triumphed with equal enthusiasm after their medals were won.

Four years later, Richardson speaks for nearly 10 minutes, nonstop, about Smith's selfishness.

Smith is brought nearly to tears as she ponders the silence she has encountered, the turned backs, the whispers from 15 women who had once been her friends and teammates.

With the 2000 Olympics less than two months away, it is uncertain which players will help the U.S. defend its gold medal.

A team was picked last September by the Amateur Softball Assn. Fifteen women and three alternates were selected. They have lived together since--training, traveling, playing games, becoming a team.

Eight 1996 Olympians made the team--Richardson, who is 38 now and an orthopedic surgeon; Laura Berg, a 25-year-old center fielder from Santa Fe Springs; first baseman Sheila Douty, a 38-year-old stepmother and stepgrandmother who lives in Diamond Bar; Lisa Fernandez, a 29-year-old pitcher and third baseman from Long Beach; Lori Harrigan, who will turn 30 during the Games, a pitcher from Las Vegas who was born in Anaheim; Leah O'Brien-Amico, 25, a right fielder from Chino Hills; 33-year-old pitcher Michelle Smith of Califon, N.J., and 22-year-old pitcher Christa Williams of Houston.

The three alternates from the 1996 team --Jennifer Brundage of Irvine, Jennifer McFalls of Grand Prairie, Texas, and Michelle Venturella of Indianapolis--also made the 2000 team.

In other words, veterans ruled.

But not in Julie Smith's case.

When envelopes were slid under the players' doors last September on the last day of a final Olympic trials camp, Smith opened hers and was stunned.

"I didn't make the team," she says now, still not believing what she is saying. "I wasn't even named an alternate."

The 32-year-old Smith, from Glendora, is immensely proud of the gold medal she won in 1996. She has been a national team member for 10 years. At the beginning of 1999, she was named one of the "elite 10," players chosen by the ASA as the nucleus of that year's national team.

Smith considered herself the best second baseman in the U.S. and still felt the same last summer when Richardson was moved to second by U.S. national and Olympic Coach Ralph Raymond.

Raymond had to make room for shortstop Crystl Bustos, a 22-year-old powerhouse hitter with a monster arm. Bustos, from Canyon Country, had played a season for the Akron Racers in the Women's Professional Softball League and was becoming a batting-practice attraction to rival Mark McGwire, at least among softball fans.

Smith was unhappy with her demotion and did not hide it. Still, she went to the trials at Midland, Mich., with 38 other players. After five days, Smith had hit for a higher average than any of the other second basemen, including Richardson, and had fielded more chances. Smith thought that the statistics were clear and that even though she and Raymond had never been friendly, it wouldn't matter.

Something mattered. Smith didn't make the team.

Within days, Smith, who had been the player rep to the U.S. Olympic Committee, filed for arbitration. Smith knew the rules. An athlete has the right to dispute an Olympic team selection if she believes the selection process has been unfair.

That was 10 months ago and nothing has been settled.

Three times now, an arbitrator has ruled that the ASA selection process was unfair. According to Smith's attorney, Danielle Carver, the ASA missed deadlines it was required to meet for filing its Olympic selection process with the USOC.

The ASA is argues that it selected the team based on two years of performance, which ended in Midland, but the arbitrator found that because of sloppy paperwork, the ASA should choose the team based on performance at the Midland camp.

"For whatever reason, the USOC didn't approve our selection procedures until [last] August," says Ron Radigonda, ASA executive director. "I think that's been the real crux of the problem, the submission of our data. We have clearly indicated all along that international events as far back as 1997 would be considered.

"Our athletes told us they did not want a one-weekend event to chose this team. Somehow this has gotten all turned around on us in arbitration."

Radigonda says there has to be some subjectivity in picking a team.

"If I were coach, I might want to play Earl Weaver-style ball and try to hit home runs, instead of bunting and advancing runners, because that's the way I think you win in international ball," Radigonda said. "Someone else might think differently."

Smith and Carver have argued that the best player for a particular position should be on the team.

It would be easy to dismiss Smith as a disgruntled loser who wasn't good enough to make it on the field and now has tried to make it through legal maneuvers.

But Smith says that even if she wins, she will not accept a roster spot.

"No way," she says. "You can tell everybody on that team that I will not play in Sydney. It's not about me now. It's about the future teams and having an even playing field for everyone."

This dispute, say several of the players who have been called to the U.S. Olympic team since last September, is about nothing more than paperwork that was filed late and an unhappy woman who won't accept reality.

This dispute, Smith says, is about a process that reeks of back-room deals, which made a mockery of the idea that every athlete had a fair shot.

"When Julie started this, I think she had the right intentions," Fernandez says. "Now all Julie is doing is hurting the sport and the team."

Says Douty, who has been Smith's roommate and friend but hasn't spoken to Smith since last September, "I think Julie believed she was doing the right thing for the sport. But I wish she could understand now how much she's hurting people she says are her friends. Can she look in her heart and say her motives are pure? Ask her that."

And Richardson, the face of women's softball, the woman who persevered through medical school while traveling the world to play the sport, Dr. Dot to many, can barely keep the fury from her voice:

"Julie's doing this because she doesn't have anything but softball," Richardson said. "It's too bad. But the process was fair and Julie, as well as anyone, knew exactly how this team was going to be selected.

"Julie's using a technicality to suit herself. It's sad."

The USOC's athlete liaison, John Ruger, says the USOC "is obligated to try and mediate this dispute and we continue to do that."

In March, and again in May, the arbitrator from the American Arbitration Assn. told the ASA to pick a new team. Twice the ASA shuffled the alternates. Amanda Scott, who also filed for arbitration after not making the team, was named an alternate in place of Kelly Kretschman. Then Kretschman filed for arbitration.

According to Carver, Smith's attorney, the arbitrator ruled again last Wednesday that the ASA has not fairly picked a team and must go by the results of the Midland camp.

Carver points out that the ASA did not have its Olympic trials procedure approved by the USOC until last August and also has listed a series of episodes that she says allowed personal dislikes by the ASA and Raymond to influence a team decision.

Richardson counters that Smith "didn't perform well over a two-year period." Richardson adds that she, herself, was left off the national team for two years after the Olympics.

"The U.S. lost to Australia three times in that time," Richardson says. "Since I've been back, we haven't lost to them."

On this summer's Olympic team tour, though, Richardson has a .288 batting average, lowest of any position player.

"But what you bring to a team is more than your batting average," Richardson says. "It's what you do for the team in a lot of ways. It's hitting the winning home run in the gold-medal game at the first-ever Olympics."

Richardson also takes issue with Smith asking for monetary compensation.

"Her motives are what's best for the team," Richardson says scornfully. "Ask her about how much money she wants."

Carver says Smith is only asking for enough money to pay legal fees and for compensation for lost endorsement opportunities.

"I can't believe Dot would say that," Smith says. "That makes me so sad."

Smith says that if she'd only been given an explanation, she would have happily accepted a backup role. She says Raymond has never liked her outspoken style and that the ASA has disapproved of her signing endorsement contracts with equipment companies that don't sponsor the team.

Raymond would only say, "I have nothing against Julie and I had no say in picking this team."

Indeed, a seven-member selection committee was charged with picking the team.

Smith, however, says Raymond consulted with the committee every night during the Midland trials.

So on and on it goes.

The arbitrator, whose name has not been made public, was scheduled to return from a European vacation this week and try, once and for all, to get the ASA to abide by her ruling.

Radigonda says that the ASA selection committee will meet Sunday and Monday and try to select a team that will pass muster with the arbitrator.

"Athletes have fought long and hard for the right to arbitration," the USOC's Ruger says. "The USOC will not jeopardize that right. The USOC will follow the arbitrator's decision and compel the [ASA] to do the same."

Says Radigonda, "I think our procedures are fair, I really do, and Julie was a proponent of those procedures. But if that's the ruling, to pick strictly on the basis of Midland, as best we can, that is what we'll do. It's coming to the time where we need to get this settled."

Douty asks, how fair is that?

"If you go by the arbitrator's decision, that we pick this team based only on Midland, four or five girls who have been together these last 10 months won't make the team," she says. "Is that what Julie wants?"

Center fielder Berg, Douty adds, probably would not have made the team for example. Berg's fiance suffered a broken neck in a wrestling accident two days before the trials and became a quadriplegic. Berg did poorly at the trials.

"Should Laura be punished for that?" Douty says. "Is that what Julie wants?"

Of course not, Smith says.

"My mother had a stroke last summer and nearly died," Smith said. "Did that affect my performance? Yes, but no one asks about that."

So now what? Friendships have been ruined. A team waits and wonders. Is it still a team? The team?

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°