Finch set to retire in August
Jennie Finch had no trouble dazzling everyone.
The striking blonde with the unhittable stuff was the most dominant softball pitcher of her time, giving her sport a new face just as it was starting to really catch on in the United States. Finch won an NCAA championship in record-setting fashion and added Olympic gold as she spread softball’s popularity in America and beyond.
But after 10 years of playing internationally, Finch is turning her focus to her family and her desire to have more children. The 29-year-old Finch announced Tuesday that she’ll play one more week with the U.S. team and retire from the sport next month when the National Pro Fastpitch season is over.
"This whole career has been way more than I ever even imagined or dreamed," Finch said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The opportunities that I’d be able to enjoy and appreciate and be a part of, it’s been incredible."
Finch won gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and silver four years later in Beijing. Earlier this month, she helped the U.S. win its seventh straight world championship.
Her final international games will come in the World Cup of Softball, starting Thursday night in Oklahoma City. Her pro team, the Chicago Bandits, is scheduled to play its last regular-season game on Aug. 22 at home in Elgin, Ill.
"You go anywhere and you can say, ‘Jennie Finch,’ and people know who that is," U.S. shortstop Natasha Watley said. "You say you play softball, ‘Oh, do you know who Jennie Finch is?’ Well, yeah, actually she’s my teammate.
"Just what she’s done for this sport is amazing."
The 6-foot-2 Finch was much more than a pretty face as she took over for Lisa Fernandez as the most recognized player in a sport enjoying growing popularity.
She went 32-0 in her junior year at Arizona, leading the Wildcats to the 2001 Women’s College World Series, and would win an NCAA record 60 straight decisions in a span of nearly two years. After that, she combined with the likes of Fernandez and Cat Osterman to make up the world’s best pitching rotation through the early part of the decade.
Coupled with her softball skills, Finch’s beauty and charm landed her a place in the mainstream. She struck out some of the big leagues’ best hitters in appearances on "This Week in Baseball," competed on "Celebrity Apprentice" and made the rounds on late-night talk shows.
"She set the standard for softball in a new era of being able to be feminine and play this sport," U.S. outfielder Jessica Mendoza said. "Not that you have to be feminine to play this sport, but I see hundreds of thousands of little girls now with glitter headbands, hot pink bats, makeup. I’m not saying that every girl has to do that but when I was growing up, it wasn’t like that.
"She has created a new era of softball player, and it’s for those softball players – those little girls out there – that want to be cutesy with the bows and the glitter and still be that dirty jock. Covered head to toe in dirt but she’s got her hair all perfect with a bow."
Finch, who will turn 30 in September, has a 4-year-old son, Ace, with her husband Casey Daigle, a pitcher who has split this season between the Houston Astros and Triple-A Round Rock. The couple have spent about two weeks together at their Arizona home over the past year, Finch said, and the world championships in Venezuela meant 14 days away from her family.
"I just feel like it gets harder and harder every year with Ace getting older and time away from my husband and even family events such as birthdays and friends’ weddings and things that I’ve always just missed out on because of softball," Finch said.
While many of her veteran teammates walked away from the game after the U.S. lost to Japan in the gold-medal game in 2008, Finch stuck around and helped with an unsuccessful bid to get softball added back into the Olympics. It won’t be played at the 2012 or 2016 games.
Finch hopes that eliminating travel and training will give her more time to help spread the sport, through her own camps and possibly with a role in USA Softball or as a coach or team owner.
"I hope to stay involved," she said. "It’s been such a big part of my life and I can’t imagine my life without it."
Even now, Finch gets a rush out of putting on the red, white and blue and hearing a home crowd chant "U-S-A" – something she’ll experience a few final times at the World Cup.
"Right now in my career, it’s like I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had, so it’s kind of like, "Man, I can’t stop now,"’ she said. "I’m playing first base and pitching and hitting. I feel like I’m almost better than I’ve ever been. It’s like, ‘You’re going to walk away like this?"’