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SOFTBALL

PEEKING DOWN UNDER

It was an old-fashioned barn-storming tour. A total of 57 exhibition games in 31 cities spread over 79 days. Playing mostly club teams, they won 57 straight by a combined score of 396-4. Still, it was a chance for the team to bond this summer and to spread the word of USA softball around America.

According to the Australians, it was also a way to duck the rest of the world before the Olympics.

The U.S. national team did not play in either the International Softball Cup in Sydney in the spring or the Canada Cup in Vancouver in the summer.

The word in Sydney is that the United States wanted to arrive at the Olympics as something of a mystery team.

Of course, how big a mystery can you be when you're the defending Olympic (1996), world (1998) and Pan Am (1999) champion?

But you should excuse the Australians if they are obsessing about the United States. Australia was the only team to beat the United States in the '96 Olympics, but wound up losing to China and settling for bronze while the Americans came back to win the gold. Australia also finished second to the United States in the world championships in Japan in 1998.

"We've given four years of our lives in order to prepare for what's going to happen in September," U.S. pitcher Lisa Fernandez said. "(Australia) definitely feels like we've taken what they think is theirs. They're thinking they're the best in the world, when it's truly the U.S."

The advantage the United States had as the host team in '96 now belongs to the Australians who, along with China and Japan, should be the top challengers for the gold.

A NAME TO REMEMBER

The best sign that the United States will repeat?

Their star in '96 was shortstop Dot Richardson. They have upgraded that position in 2000.

Richardson has moved from short to second to make way for Crystl Bustos, one of the top power hitters in the world.

Bustos, who turned 23 on Friday, appears to be a better hitter than anyone the United States had four years ago. In the 57-game pre-Olympic tour, Bustos hit .443 with 15 home runs and an .823 slugging percentage.

"It takes your breath away when you watch her hit," Richardson said.

DID YOU KNOW

Lisa Fernandez was the talk of the summer tour with her five consecutive perfect games and six straight no-hitters. But, statistically speaking, she may not have been the team's best pitcher.

Fernandez had a 0.00 ERA over 67 innings with 162 strikeouts. Michele Smith had a 0.00 ERA over 68 innings with 164 strikeouts.

To be fair, Fernandez had one advantage:

Smith did give up a double in 210 at-bats. Fernandez did not allow an extra-base hit in 206 at-bats.

ATLANTA RECAP

You knew Michael Johnson would be an attraction. And gymnastics always manages to churn out a star or two. But who could have predicted that a softball team would capture America's heart? By playing crisp, tight, exciting games and with a roster full of personalities, watching the United States march toward gold was one of the more enjoyable subplots of the Olympics.

Each of their last four victories was by a one- or two-run margin, including the gold medal game against China.

BASEBALL

PEEKING DOWN UNDER

For the first time, professional baseball players are allowed in the Olympics. The result should be underwhelming.

The NBA has been able to compile a Dream Team of its best players because the Olympics arrive in the off-season. Major League Baseball might as well be fielding a Teen Team in Sydney.

Because the Olympics fall in the middle of baseball's pennant races, no major leaguers will be going to Australia. Instead, the United States will be sending a team of minor leaguers. And not even the very best minor leaguers.

With major league rosters expanded this month to allow minor league players to be called up, some teams did not want their best prospects playing in Australia.

That might explain why Eric Munson, Corey Patterson, Vernon Wells, Ryan Anderson, Barry Zito and Nick Johnson are not on the Olympic team. But four members of the Devil Rays organization are included: Brent Abernathy, Pat Borders, Bobby Seay and Matt White.

Selection committee chairman Bob Watson said officials did the best they could with what was offered by major league baseball.

"If we win the gold medal with these guys," he said, "maybe that won't be an issue."

NAMES TO REMEMBER

Whether or not they are the Olympics baseball stars of 2000 remains to be seen. But Sean Burroughs and C.C. Sabathia appear to be the top major league prospects on the roster.

Burroughs, the son of former American League MVP Jeff Burroughs, already is being called the Padres best homegrown prospect since Tony Gwynn. At 19, the third baseman was the MVP of the Futures All-Star Game in July in Atlanta.

Sabathia is a 6-foot-7 left-handed pitcher who throws in the upper 90s and just turned 20. When the Indians were desperately seeking starting pitching for the pennant race, they refused to give up Sabathia in any trades.

DID YOU KNOW

One of these days, we might be talking about the glory days of Olympic baseball _ back before the major leagues got involved.

When baseball was an exhibition sport and used only amateurs, the United States had what may be its most impressive roster in 1984. Will Clark, Barry Larkin, Mark McGwire, B.J. Surhoff, Bill Swift and Bobby Witt were among the future major leaguers on the roster.

Alas, the United States lost 6-3 to Japan in the gold medal game.

ATLANTA RECAP

The United States was one victory from meeting Cuba in the gold medal game when it was beaten by Japan and sent to the consolation game. With Travis Lee and Matt LeCroy hitting first-inning home runs, the United States beat Nicaragua 10-3 for the bronze medal. It was an improvement from 1992 when the United States lost the consolation game. Overall, the United States is 12-6 in Olympic play since baseball became a medal sport in 1992.

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