Softball Icon Jennie Finch Takes her Last Bow
With one wide wave toward the Oklahoma City crowd, Jennie Finch took a final walk to the dugout donning a USA uniform.
As she took the steps, she embraced longtime Olympic teammate Cat Osterman while the crowd, gathered to watch the face of USA softball one last time, chanted "Jennie, Jennie."
The USA squad began celebrating a convincing 5-1 July 26 victory over the same Japanese team that upset them in the Beijing Olympics two years ago, but most eyes fell on No. 27. After USA pitcher Monica Abbott closed out the inning, each USA player, sporting Finch's trademark headband, circled around Finch giving congratulatory hugs, and pats on the back. Some players shed a few tears.
"There's no crying in softball," Finch said gleefully, citing Tom Hanks' line from the 1992 film, "A League of Their Own" that chronicled the story of the members All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Like those women, Finch, was a pioneer in her own right and transcended her sport to a visibility never before seen.
During her nine years as a member of Team USA and four years at the University of Arizona, the power right-handed pitcher brought dominance to the sport never seen before. Finch announced her retirement from softball on July 20. She was scheduled to close out her career Aug. 24-29 in Sulphur, La. in the NPF playoffs.
Among her accomplishments: an NCAA-record 60 wins, two-time World Champion, A gold and silver medal in the Olympics, and two-time NCAA National Player of the Year (2001 and 2002) and two gold medals in the Pan American Games.
She became an international celebrity posing for Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit edition, co-hosting Baseball weekly and making an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman and the Jimmy Kimmel show. She became one of the world's most marketable female athletes, earning endorsement deals with Sprint, Bank of America and 24 Hour Fitness.
"Obviously she’s become iconic in sports," said longtime USA softball coach Mike Candrea, who also coached Finch at Arizona. "Whether it was her beauty that gave her those opportunities to get on public stage or her talent ...I don’t think the fame has ever gotten to her; she’s continued to have balance in her life. She’s the same Jennie Finch I knew 12 years ago. She definitely has touched a lot of lives throughout the country and throughout the world.”
Finch plans to spend more time with her four-year old son, Ace, and husband, Houston Astros pitcher Casey Daigle, but hasn't ruled out a return to softball in some capacity.
Despite her celebrity, Finch, 30, remained humble and willing to give back to the sport. She will continue to focus on her softball camp in Flemington, N.J. In addition to countless promotional appearances, she has campaigned to bring softball back to the Olympics, which was removed for competition for the 2012 London games and 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
After the birth of her son, Finch's schedule began taking its toll. Finch had multiple commitments for the U.S. National Team, training and making appearances and she also had to balance her schedule between family and traveling to Elgin, Ill., to compete for the Chicago Bandits.
"Over the last few summers it got a little tougher being away from my son and my husband," Finch said. "Softball is a lot of time and commitment and it's getting harder balancing Team USA, the Bandits and my family. And you know what? I've had amazing career and I couldn't have dreamed of or hoped for anymore. I've had an amazing time playing this game and seeing it grow for many years."
Finch said she was not sure this summer until her agent and the Team USA public relations staff convinced her to make the announcement shortly before the World Cup in July.
"They were saying if you were going to announce it, you need to announce it (before the World Cup)," Finch said. "I didn't want that; I wanted it to be about Team USA and the World Cup, but I wanted to show my appreciation and gratitude and thanks to the fans and coaches."
Finch was scheduled to play her final softball games in the league she helped establish, for the Chicago Bandits during the National Pro Fastpitch Softball League playoffs in August. Finch currently ranks second in the NPF in ERA, with 5-4 record and 69 strikeouts. The Bandits dropped their final regular season game 4-2 with Finch on the mound Aug. 22.
“You look at her headbands all over the country when you watch softball," Candrea said. "In the past you’ve never seen that. Wherever she goes, she draws crowds and I think the reason she does, is the way she treats people. She still acts like kid playing travel ball in Oklahoma City.”
The La Mirada, Calif. native will end a decorated career that began as a five year old and ended with July's gold medal finish in that same city where she played travel ball as a youth. In addition to the World Cup triumph, the Americans defeated Japan at the World Championships in Venezuela earlier this year 7-0.
"We had a bitter taste with the silver medal (finishing second to Japan in the 2008 Olympics) and softball being dropped as an Olympic sport," Finch said. "I kind of looked forward to the World Cup. Our goal was to get the gold back in the U.S. and that was huge accomplishment and I enjoyed that."
Finch began her career at Arizona in 1999 as a first baseman and pitcher, and solid hitter. Finch set new milestones during her junior season, having the most dominant season in NCAA history with a perfect 32-0 record a 0.54 ERA and led the Wildcats to the 2001 NCAA national championship. Her celebrity soared during appearances with Team USA and Candrea recalled how the crowd became so raucous, during an appearance in Brazil that he had to act as her personal bodyguard.
Finch's popularity helped fuel the creation of the National Pro Fastpitch Tournament and Finch competed for the Chicago Bandits since 2005, sitting out the 2008 season for national team commitments. She helped lead the Bandits to the 2009 NPF championship.
"I'm going to miss (softball) so very much and it's a dear part of my life," Finch said. "My teammates are more than teammates -- they're friends and sisters to me and there's no greater feeling than being with teammates in workouts and practices -- all those times along with the traveling." "I look forward to a bright future for the sport. It's been one amazing ride."