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U.S. Softball Pitcher Does Family Proud


May 27, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Letting it fly.

There were Barbie dolls, frilly dresses and other girly things in Lisa Fernandez's closet when she was growing up in Los Angeles. But her greatest possessions shattered stereotypes of possessions a young Hispanic girl should cherish: A bat, glove and softball.

And for that, she can thank papi.

A former political prisoner, Antonio Fernandez came to the United States from Cuba just before the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and married a woman named Emilia from Puerto Rico. Their daughter would grow up with a greater fondness of leather than lace.

The family's bloodwork offered incriminating evidence. Antonio was a former semi-pro baseball player in Cuba. Emilia would become Lisa's first coach in children's softball.

Many more games would be played as Lisa went through puberty and beyond.

"His friends used to give him a bad time," Fernandez said. "'Why is daughter is still playing? She should be married and having kids.' My dad took my medals and my bat with my name on it and my posters and said, 'this is what my daughter does.'"

Now 33, Fernandez is one of the elite softball players in the world. She prepares for her third Summer Olympics as one of the stars on a dominant United States team that has crushed any semblance of competition.

The U.S. women put together a 110-game winning streak heading into the Summer Games in Sydney in 2000, only to lose three straight games in the preliminary round. Facing elimination, the U.S. women won five consecutive games to claim gold again.

And there on the mound, tears caressing her face, was Fernandez. After beating Japan, 2-1, in the final, Fernandez though about her family's sacrifices, and the freedom of choices that are impossible under Fidel's despicable rule.

"There is no dictatorship," she said four years ago. "To be able to hear the national anthem and know I fought for this country the best way I know how, which is on the softball field. It's a real emotional time."

Emotions and patriotic pride swell again, as the U.S. chases its third consecutive gold medal. The venue changes to Athens, a city plagued by escalating security issues. Fernandez and her teammates will have little qualms about going.

"To compete on stage at the Olympic Games, you have countries and teams that have sacrificed four years of their lives for one moment in time -- that reflects the true competitiveness of The Games," Fernandez said.

Her husband Michael Lujan jokes that she has the skills and patience to last through another four-year Olympic cycle, but Fernandez thinks of more practical matters.

She is a prominent member of a group that is starting a pro tour called the Ladies Professional Fastpitch Association (LPSA), which will work in conjunction with USA Softball to develop a system that will allow athletes to be compensated without affecting their amateur status.

Coaching is another likely option. She had been a volunteer assistant at UCLA until she had to step down to avoid any potential recruiting conflicts with the women's professional league.

Nearly three decades since she was smitten by the game, Lisa Fernandez thinks of opportunities and sacrifice, and parents who believe that little girls can chase whatever dreams their heart desires.

"I think they were definitely in the forefront when it came to that," Fernandez said. "I would like the Hispanic community to take advantage of what opportunities that athletics can provide…to their daughters and to their sons equally."

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