American softball player
Pitcher Lisa Fernández is widely thought to be the best softball player in the world. Besides throwing countless strikeouts in international play since joining the national team in 1990, Fernández is also a solid third baseman and a powerful hitter. She is best known to most Americans for her role in winning the first Olympic gold medal in softball in 1996 and for pitching the team to a successful defense of its Olympic title in 2000.
A Rough Start in the Sport
Softball is a family sport for Fernández. Her father played semiprofessional baseball in Cuba until he fled the country as a political refugee after the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1962. After he married Fernández's mother, the two played together in slow-pitch leagues. Fernández started to play softball very young, and when she was eight she became the pitcher for a local girls' team.
Fernández's first outing as a pitcher was not very successful. She threw three balls in a row to the first batter, and then hit the child in the head with her fourth pitch. By the end of the game, her team had lost 25-0. But Fernández stuck with the sport. She and her mother practiced pitching in their backyard, and the more Fernández worked the more her team's scores improved.
Fernández turned another excuse to give up into a reason to work harder when she was 12 years old and a noted pitching coach told her that her arms were too
short. She would never be a competitive pitcher past the age of 16, he told her. As Fernández has told the story numerous times, she left his office and started to bawl, thinking that her career was over. Her mother turned around and yelled, "Stop crying! …If you ever let someone in life tell you what you can or cannot do, you'll never make it," she told Larry O'Rourke of the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call.
Fernández worked hard to prove that she could be a good pitcher, and her work paid off with a spot on the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) Bruins softball team. With the Bruins, Fernández won numerous national awards for her playing, as well as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships in 1990 and 1992. Fernández's pitching was a major contribution to those wins: She pitched five shut-outs during UCLA's 1992 postseason, setting a record for consecutive scoreless innings for the Women's College World Series. The Bruins came within one game of winning the NCAA title Fernández's senior year, too, but they lost the championship game to the University of Arizona 1-0.
Even before she left UCLA, Fernández had already played in and won numerous international tournaments with the official USA softball team. She continued to do so after she was graduated, acquiring a 14-0 pitching record in international play by the time the first Olympic softball tournament ever was held in 1996, in Atlanta, Georgia. The American team as a whole had a record of 115-1 in the decade before those Olympics and was heavily favored to win the gold medal.
Fernández came within one out and a missed step of pitching the first perfect game in Olympic softball. Team USA was 5-0, the only undefeated team in round-robin play, and the United States was playing Australia in their sixth game. The game was scoreless in the first four innings. Then, in the fifth, American player Dani Tyler hit a ball over the fence. It should have been a home run, but the Australian team claimed that Tyler had failed to step on home plate and the umpire agreed. After nine scoreless innings (regulation is seven in Olympic softball), the tiebreaker rule, which allows each team to place a runner on second base at the beginning of their half of the inning, went into effect. In the top of the tenth the United States went up 1-0 on an unearned run. All Fernández had to do was strike out three Australian players to win. She struck out two and had two strikes on the last batter, Joanne Brown, when Brown hit the last pitch out of the park for a two-run homer and the win.
The United States went on to win the gold as expected, but the loss to Australia still rankled for Fernández, especially after someone (she suspects an Australian player) sent Fernández an anonymous postcard, which showed Brown celebrating her victory on the shoulders of her teammates and the message "See you in Japan," four months after the loss. Japan was where the 1998 world softball championships would be held. Fernández exorcised her demons there by beating Australia: She pitched a shutout and hit a home run herself in the first inning.
|1971||Born February 22|
|1989||Begins attending the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA)|
|1990||First plays in international softball competition|
|1995||Is graduated from UCLA with a degree in psychology|
|1996||Plays in the first ever Olympic softball tournament|
|2002||Marries Michael Lujan, a special education teacher, in August|
The U.S. team was heavily favored again going into the 2000 Sydney (Australia) Olympics-they had a 110-game winning streak going into those games-but victory did not come as easily to them in Sydney as it had in Atlanta. The team lost three games in a row, to Japan, China, and their nemesis Australia, during the round-robin portion of the tournament. The game against Australia was an eerie replay play of their 1996 round-robin matchup: In the first 12 and two-thirds innings Fernández allowed only one hit and no runners to score, and she set an Olympic record of 25 strikeouts. Then in the bottom of the thirteenth inning an Australian batter hit a home run off of her to win the game. After that, Fernández ordered her team into the showers, uniforms and all, to wash off the "voodoo." Apparently it worked, because the United States won all of their games after that. They beat China, Australia, and Japan, in that order, in the playoffs to win the gold.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1990, 1992||NCAA championships (with UCLA)|
|1990, 1994,||International Softball Federation world softball championships|
|1991-93||Given Honda Award for best American college softball player|
|1991, 1999||Pan American Games|
|1992||Women's World Challenger Cup|
|1993||Named Woman of the Year by NCAA|
|1993||Recipient of Honda-Broderick Cup for most outstanding collegiate female athlete|
|1998||South Pacific Classic; also named most outstanding pitcher|
|1999||Canada Cup; also named most valuable player|
|2000||Sets a record for most strikeouts in one Olympic game, with 25|
|2002||World softball championships|
Looking to the Future
Fernández is keeping her game sharp in hopes of winning a third Olympic medal in Athens, Greece, in 2004, and she continues to play professional softball with the National Pro Fastpitch league (formerly the Women's Pro Softball League), as she has for several years. Even after she retires, "I definitely want to be able to stay in the sport," she told Kevin Tran. She is currently an assistant coach of her old team, the UCLA Bruins, "And if coaching is my calling, then I will do it-[w]hether it's UCLA or internationally. Softball is in my blood and it's something I love to do, and I plan on making a contribution in the sport once my playing career is done."
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——. "Solid Gold: Fernandez Just Misses Perfect Game." Capital Times (Madison, WI; July 23, 2001): 2D.
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Tran, Kevin. "10 Questions for …Lisa Fernandez." U.S. Olympic Committee. http://www.olympic-usa.org/10_questions/080502softball.html (August 5, 2002).
Sketch by Julia Bauder