“You play like a girl!” used to be one of baseball’s classic insults. Not anymore. Softball diva Jennie Finch has made it cool to not only throw like a girl, but to run, field and hit like one, too. Not since Babe Ruth has a player dominated so completely from the pitching rubber and the batter’s box, and she even gives the Bambino a run for his money in the charisma department. Jennie has also accomplished something Ruth never could: She is showing the boys it’s okay to be one of the girls. This is her story
Jennie Finch was born on September 3, 1980, in La Mirada, California. Jennie’s parents, Doug and Bev, already had two boys, Shane and Landon. Both loved baseball and played competitively, but it wasn’t until Jennie took up the game that the family really got serious about it.
La Mirada offered organized ball on a year-round basis. Jennie joined her first league, L’il Miss T-Ball, after her fifth birthday. She was one of those kids who excelled at a number of sports, but her greatest love was always for baseball. Bev and Doug soon began channeling this passion almost exclusively into girls’ softball. Their daughter had good hand-eye coordination and excellent speed. But it was her arm that opened the most eyes. During winter vacation in Iowa one year, she celebrated her first snowfall by packing a snowball and literally heaving it out of sight.
Jennie’s hometown was also close to Dodger Stadium, where the Finches had season tickets on the third-base line. Bev, the baseball nut in the family, listened to Vin Scully on a pair of headphones while she took in the action. As soon as Jennie was old enough, she began accompanying her mom to Chavez Ravine, bleeding Dodger blue and rooting for heroes like Kirk Gibson, whose dramatic homer sparked LA to a World Series title a few weeks after Jennie’s eighth birthday.
Doug did whatever he could to accelerate his daughter’s progress. He constructed a batting cage in the backyard, and hired a fast-pitch instructor for Jennie. Later, he transformed a small trampoline into a pitch-back she could use on evenings when he worked late.
As Jennie improved, her dad immersed himself in softball and became her personal coach. By the time she turned nine, she was playing for a 10-and-under traveling all-star team. Every weekend was spent at a different diamond somewhere in suburban Southern California. The more competitive the environment, the more Jennie thrived. At age 12, she led the California Cruisers to the 12-and-under American Softball Association national title in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
By now, Jennie’s life was focused on softball, though she did have a normal life outside the sport. She liked to shop, try on her mom’s makeup and hang out with her friends. In school, she was an excellent student. But softball consumed most of her free time. Every summer the sport brought her to a new part of the country for a national tournament.
In 1995, Jennie’s ASA team captured the 14-and-under crown. During the summer of 1996, she rooted for the U.S. softball team as it rolled to Olympic gold in Atlanta. When the squad toured the country weeks later, Jennie waited on a long line to get Dot Richardson’s autograph. She dreamed of becoming an Olympic champ herself, and swinging a Jennie Finch bat.
At La Mirada High School, Jennie made the varsity as a freshman, earned the first of her four letters in the sport, and helped the Matadores to the first of four straight Suburban League titles. During her high school career, she also lettered twice in basketball and in volleyball, but the softball diamond is where she truly distinguished herself. Tall and lean, she was blessed with loads of natural talent and an intense desire to win.
As a sophomore, Jennie began amassing an impressive list on honors, being chosen All-Suburban League, All-CIF Division II, and Whittier Daily News All-Area. The following year she was selected league MVP. In the summer of 1997, she spearheaded a team that won the ASA 18-and-under championship.
Jennie continued her domination as a senior at La Mirada High. Between practice and games, softball was like a full-time job, and she enjoyed every minute of it. Her school’s Female Athlete of the Year, she was named to the Long Beach Press-Telegram’s Softball Dream Team and garnered the paper’s Player of the Year award. Jennie was a great hitter, but no one could touch her as a pitcher. In her four years as a Matadore, she went 50-12, with six perfect games, 13 no-hitters, and a 0.15 ERA. In 445 innings, she fanned 784 hitters.
The nation’s top high school recruit according to Jump Magazine, Jennie had her choice of schools. Nearby UCLA seemed to have the inside track, but she was also interested in the University of Arizona. The coach there, Mike Candrea, had first spotted Jennie when she was 16. He followed her career from that point on, and when it came time for Jennie to commit, she opted for the Wildcats. The school’s proud softball traditionwhich included five national titles since 1991was a determining factor.
Before Jennie left for Tucson, she competed for USA Softball in the inaugural Junior Superball tournament. Against an international field, the Americans claimed the gold.
ON THE RISE
Jennie made an impact at Arizona in her first year. The Wildcats entered the 1999 season as a legitimate contender for the national title. Candrea’s team was young and talented. A pair of sophomores, Nicole Giordano and Toni Mascarenas, helped pace the offense. In the pitching rotation, Jennie teamed up with Becky Lemke for a formidable one-two punch.
Jennie’s adjustment to the college game took several starts. In the summer tournaments, she had become accustomed to overwhelming opponents with hard stuff. Experienced Division-I hitters, however, could handle Jennie’s heater if they knew it was coming, so she had to learn to mix her pitches more effectively. She had a full arsenala left break and right break, a drop and a riserit was now a matter of refining them. By May, Jennie was feeling right at home. Her record stood at 19-6, and she was putting up some of her best performances against tough Pac-10 rivals.
When Candrea’s fab frosh wasn’t pitching, he penciled her in at first base, where she established herself as one of Arizona’s most dangerous hitters. Jennie finished the season as the team leader in doubles (14) and extra-base hits (21). Her seven homers were second best on the squad.
Jennie was most impressive on the mound. With 24 victories, she came within one of tying Lemke’s freshman record. She saved some of her finest work for the Division-I Softball Championships. In the regional draw, she spun a no-hitter against Southwest Texas State, and followed that gem with a one-hitter versus Kansas and then a two-hitter versus Maryland. She also batted .353 with four doubles, a homer and six RBIs. For her efforts, Jennie was voted NCAA Region 2 Most Outstanding Player. Though Arizona stumbled in the Women’s College World Series, Jennie’s frosh campaign was a huge success.
Her busy schedule resumed over the summer, as she played in a pair of international events. In the Junior Women’s World Championship, Team USA took the silver. Jennie later led her club team to a fourth-place finish at the Canada Cup.
Back in Tucson for the 2000 season, Jennie looked to build on her sparkling freshman performance. Again, she and Lemke combined to form one of the country’s nastiest pitching duos. In Arizona’s first nine games, they surrendered just seven earned runs in 54 innings.
Jennie was also swinging a hot stick. At one point, in fact, she strung together a 14-game hitting streak. Jennie ended her sophomore campaign with a .327 batting average and was tops on the Wildcats with 16 home runs. She earned first-team All-America and All-Pac 10 honors, but her hitting stats told only a portion of the story.
On the hill, Jennie established herself as Arizona’s ace. Overall, she went 29-2 with a 0.79 ERA, and as she had the year before, Jennie took it up a notch in the post-season. In the Regional Final, she fired three no-hitters in a row, blanking Tennessee Tech, Drake and Nebraska. She was named Most Outstanding Player for the second year in a row. Unfortunately, the Wildcats stalled again in the WCWS.
After back-to-back years of post-season disappointment, Arizona was determined to go all the way in 2001. Candrea liked his team’s chances. His senior class, paced by Lemke, was the deepest in the country. She and Jennie were nearly automatic on the mound, while Giordano, Mascarenas and Lauren Bauer gave the Wildcats one of the most potent offenses in the college game.
Jennie, meanwhile, was gaining recognition as the finest two-way player in women’s softball. She assumed a leadership role as the Wildcats steamrolled through the regular season, slamming 11 home runs (including three grand slams) and topping the team with 57 RBIs. In a victory over Oregon, she drove in nine runs, tying former Arizona slugger Laura Espinoza for the second-best single-game total in NCAA history. Jennie was even better when staring in at hitters. During one stretch, she fanned 10 or more in seven straight starts. She was particularly tough against Stanford, striking out 40 in three wins over the Cardinal
Riding a 22-game winning streak, Arizona was the clear favorite heading into the WCWS. With a pair of aces (Jennie was a perfect 29-0 at this point) and a record 121 homers, the Wildcats featured the nation’s most intimidating squad. They opened the action in Oklahoma with two wins in a row, which set up an epic match against UCLA for all the marbles.
Candrea handed the ball to Jennie, while the Bruins turned to Amanda Freed, who hadn’t allowed a run in her last 34 innings. With the game scoreless in the fourth, Lindsey Collins finally snapped Freed’s shutout streak, blasting a solo shot to put Arizona ahead 1-0. That was all the support Jennie needed. When she blew away Toria Auelua for the game’s last out, the Wildcats poured onto the field and mobbed their star, who was named the WCWS Most Outstanding Player.
More honors awaited Jennie. A first-team All American, she received the Honda Softball Award as the National Player of the Year, and was named the Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year. At 32-0, she posted a new mark for wins without a loss. Her ERA was a microscopic 0.54.
Jennie was far from done with softball in ’01. First, she led the Phoenix Storm to the ASA Major National Championship. Then her USA Blue Team captured the gold medal at the Pan Am Qualifier in Maracay, Venezuela. She struck out 27 in her two startsboth winsand dropped a perfect game on Guatemala.
MAKING HER MARK
Nicole Giordano, 2004 ASA Postcard
Jennie enjoyed another marvelous campaign in her senior year at Arizona, which catapulted her into a new stratosphere of stardom. She entered 2002 with 40 straight victories10 short of the NCAA mark set by Florida State’s Rebecca Aase from 1991 to 1993. When the mainstream national press picked up on the story, and ran photos of the stunning blonde hurler, Jennie gained enormous recognition outside of the softball world. Ever the team player, she tried to deflect the media attention toward the Wildcat program, but whenever a reporter called it was to talk about her, not Arizona softball.
As the team prepared for the Worth Wildcat Invitational in February, Jennie was two wins shy of Aase’s record. In Arizona’s first contest, she twirled her fifth shutout in a row, a 10-0 blowout of San Jose State. The next afternoon, she yielded a two-run homer in the first inning against Northern Iowa. But the Panthers couldn’t muster another hit, and the Wildcats cruised to victory. Jennie now had a share of the all-time mark.
In tournament’s Sunday finale,she faced Cal State Northridge with win number 51 just seven innings away. In front of a huge crowd at Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium in Arizona, it was business as usual. Jennie fanned the first three batters of the game, and then scattered three hits the rest of the way for a 6-0 victory. The fans gave her a standing ovation for her effort.
Jennie eventually ran her record to 60 in a row, a mark that some likened to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Though the Wildcats failed to defend their national crown, they did advance to the WCWS. But in the final, despite the fact they had Jennie on the mound, Arizona could not scratch out a victory.
At season’s end, Jennie was an easy choice for her second Honda award. She was also named co-winner of the Ruby Award, presented to Arizona’s outstanding female senior student-athlete. After graduation, a host of options presented themselves to Jennie. She liked teaching and working with kids, a commitment further strengthened during an internship with the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and Blind.
Softball was also in her plans. Coach Candrea had already offered her a job as his assistant for the coming year, and the Olympics were two summers away. Securing a spot on the national team was Jennie’s top priority. She took an important step toward that goal at the 2002 ISF Women’s World Softball Championship over the summer. On a team with America’s top players, including Lisa Fernandez, she chipped in with a win over Australia as the U.S. brought home the title.
Jennie Finch, Souvenir Photo
Jennie’s personal life was no less hectic. The more notoriety she gained for her play on the field, the more she wowed people with her beauty and grace off it. When Jennie showed up at the 2002 ESPY Awards in a slinky black dress, she attracted a legion of new fans. Among those was Casey Daigle, a minor-league pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks. During the spring, he had accompanied Luis Gonzalez and several other teammates on a trip to watch Jennie pitch. For Daigle, it was love at first sight. He asked her out again and again until she finally relented. The couple became one of the sports world’s hottest items.
Jennie’s rapidly expanding public profile opened new doors for her. In October 2002, “This Week in Baseball” signed her as the show’s first female correspondent. Her segment, “Pitch, Hit, and Run with Jennie Finch,” debuted in 2003 and matched her each week with a major leaguer to talk about baseball fundamentals. Some in the media criticized the move, citing Jennie’s lack of broadcasting experience. But as a Communications major at Arizona, she felt confident in her ability to learn on the fly.
Something no one bothered to teach Jennie in any of her classes is how substance often takes a backseat to style. For the first time in her life, she was being noticed more for her looks than her softball talent. On the Arizona campus, where softball stars were celebrities, she had been The Man. Now she was The Chick. Indeed, ratings showed that a lot of male fans who had formerly channel surfed during the kids segment on TWIB were now staying tuned, and it wasn’t because of the wisdom she was imparting.
A devout Christian, Jennie took a while to find peace with this situation. And though she remains uncomfortable with the tradeoff, she never allowed it to impede here transition to television, which was surprisingly smooth. It didn’t hurt that her weekly gig included facing big leaguers and embarrassing them with her unhittable stuff. Cincinnati’s Sean Casey was the first to get a hit off Jennie, and it was a weak single.
In July of 2003, Jennie traveled with the U.S. national team to the Dominican Republic for the Pan American Games. The Americans were heavy favorites, and they showed why by sweeping through their draw for the gold. Along the way, the team got perfect games from Fernandez, Lori Harrigan and Cat Osterman.
Over the next year, preparing for the 2004 Olympics consumed almost all of Jennie’s time. Even when Daigle surprised her with a marriage proposaland she acceptedshe didn’t let her concentration waver. That was welcome news to Candrea, Team USA’s head coach. When his squad began its “Aiming for Athens” tour in February, he was concerned that Jennie had been spreading herself too thin. But she quickly dismissed this notion. Over the next five months, she went 15-0, fanning 208 in just over 100 innings. The media and fans cheered her as the darling of the American team.
Jennie preferred, however, to simply blend in with her teammates. In the opinion of manyincluding Sports Illustratedthey desrved the “Dream Team” label in Athens. Jennie, Fernandez, Osterman and Harrigan formed the best rotation in their sport’s history, and there wasn’t a weak bat on the roster.
Casey Daigle, 2004 Ultra Insert
The Summer Games began for the American women with an easy 7-0 victory over Italy. The contest was especially meaningful because it was the first for Candrea since the death of his wife, Sue, had succumbed to cancer weeks earlier. Jennie and her teammates saluted her by wearing “SC” on their wristbands.
Team USA roared through its next five contestsall shutouts. Against Canada, Jennie pitched a one-hitter, while Fernandez and Crystl Bustos powered the offense with a home run apiece. In the gold medal game, the Americans finally gave up their first run of the tournament, but were never threatened in a 5-1 victory over Australia. SI hailed them as the “greatest team of all time.”
Jennie returned home as a conquering heroine. In Greece, she and her teammates had captured the imagination of athletes and fans alike. The men’s basketball team acknowledged them during the Opening Ceremonies, Andy Roddick asked to have his picture taken with them, and their games sold out the Olympic Softball Stadium.
U.S. Softball Team,
2004 Sports Illustrated
Back in the States, Jennie’s popularity skyrocketed. She appeared on late-night TV with David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel. Magazines like Glamour and Vanity Fair ran features on her. She couldn’t go anywhere without someone asking for her autograph.
Jennie became a lot richer, too. She signed endorsement deals with Sprint, Bank of America, Sealy, 24 Hour Fitness Worldwide and Bollenot to mention Mizuno, which created a line of bats, gloves and shoes with her name on them. Jennie also launched a partnership with Octagon, the agency that represents Anna Kournikova. In addition, she committed to play for National Pro Fastpitch, formerly known as the Women’s Pro Softball League, which was founded in 1997. She signed with the Chicago Bandits in December of 2004.
But most important to Jennie is her standing in her sport. When Dot Richardson retired after the 2000 Olympics, women’s softball needed a new queen to assume her thrown. No one ever bargained they’d get someone like Jenniea bona fide superstar whose skills are rivaled only by her beauty and charisma.
JENNIE THE PLAYER
There is literally nothing Jennie can’t do on a softball field. She’s an excellent hitter, smart baserunner and, of course, an overpowering pitcher. Her instincts are remarkable, too. Her mom and dad can share some of the credit for Jennie’s talent. Doug helped her develop many of her skills, while Bev passed along her feel for the game. Jennie’s work ethic and competitive fire are all hers.
As a pitcher, Jennie has few peers. She has five pitchesrise-ball, curveball, screwball, drop-ball and changeupand can throw all with great control. Jennie regularly hits 70 mph on the radar gun, which from 46 feet is comparable to a Nolan Ryan fastballwith a lot more movement. One the keys to her success is the ability to deliver her changeup with the same arm speed as her hard stuff. Intimidation is another weapon. Some hitters (including a few big leaguers) are actually scared to stand in the batter’s box against her.
Despite all of her individual press clippings, Jennie has always been a loyal, team-first player. Winning is her only concern on the field and in the dugout, and those she plays with respect her immensely. They also genuinely like her. Jennie can be a talk-it-up leader or a quiet foot soldier who does her job. Her record as a winner speaks for itself.