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Bustos a 'pitcher's worst nightmare'

8/12/2004

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.''