Bustos a 'pitcher's worst nightmare'

Updated: August 12, 2004, 5:10 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- She's Barry Bonds with a ponytail and an Olympic tattoo on her right arm. And when Crystl Bustos flexes her muscles, the five rings imprinted below her shoulder swell impressively.

Soon, the U.S. team's hard-hitting third baseman could leave her own lasting mark on the Athens Games. Respected and feared by opposing pitchers, Bustos is the most intimidating hitter in women's softball -- bar none.

"I'm just so glad that I don't have to face her,'' says her teammate, pitcher Jennie Finch.

Italy's Nicole Di Salvio won't be so lucky.

"Everyone knows Bustos,'' said Di Salvio, whose team will play the Americans on Saturday. "She's a great hitter.''

No woman in the world can hit a softball quite like Bustos (pronounced BOOS-tos), one of six U.S. players returning from the 2000 gold-medal winning squad from Sydney. When Bustos connects, the ball carves a wicked path through dirt, grass or sky.

"She's just awesome,'' said Italian coach Barry Blanchard, a member of Australia's coaching staff in Sydney. "I've never see anyone hit harder line drives. And, she hits everything -- inside fastballs, outside curveballs. It's tough to get her out. You just have to hope to get lucky.''

One of Bustos' home runs on the U.S. team's recent "Aiming for Athens'' tour has become legendary. During an exhibition game in March, the powerful 5-foot-8 Californian connected for a homer that threatened to leave the city limits of Waco, Texas.

"That may be the farthest I've ever seen a softball hit,'' said Baylor coach and eyewitness Glenn Moore.

And the laid-back Bustos, whose engaging off-the-field personality contrasts with her demeanor inside the foul lines, has never hit one better.

"Hardest I've ever hit a ball,'' said Bustos, who took out her anger on the ball after she was taunted by Baylor baseball players in the stands. "It went so far in the air, big-league style. It went past the parking lot and by the street light. I don't think anyone ever found it.''

So, how far, 350 feet?

"Easy,'' she said. Four hundred? "Easy,'' Bustos said, flicking her left wrist for effect. "Gone.''

The Sydney Games were a rare moment when Bustos slumped, though the reason couldn't have been more understandable -- the unexpected death of her beloved, 78-year-old grandfather, Santos Castro, Jr., back in Canyon Country, Calif. He helped raise Bustos and her siblings.

The shocking news came after the United States had lost to Japan, snapping the Americans' 112-game winning streak. Her grandfather's passing rocked Bustos, who had hit three homers to that point in the tourney but then tailed off.

"It's still hard,'' she said, lowering her voice. "The thing that hurt most was that it was unexpected. At the Games, I had called him after our first two games and we talked like always. I grew up with my grandparents. I miss him.''

Bustos only told a few of her teammates about her grandfather's death during the Olympics, and her family decided to postpone his funeral until after the Americans rallied to win their second straight gold medal.

"It was real difficult to deal with, which is why everyone is waiting to see what I do this time around,'' Bustos said.

She seems ready to bust out. She was the U.S. team's leading hitter during its recent tour, batting .500 (82-for-164) with 24 homers and 94 RBIs in 53 games. She recorded 179 total bases and a staggering 1.091 slugging percentage.

Those are numbers Bonds can't even approach. But like the San Francisco Giants star, Bustos doesn't always get a good pitch to hit. Often, pitchers will work around her rather than risk giving up a ball they may never see again.

Some pitchers have even conceded a run by walking Bustos with the bases loaded. Not if she can help it, though.

"When they're walking me, I'm just waiting for that one mistake,'' she said. "If they get the ball a little too close, I'll step out and hit it. I like being a pitcher's worst nightmare.''

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press