- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Since there’s really no way around it, might as well start with the obvious: Jennie Finch is nice to look at. Kournikova with a heater. In the parlance of the kids, a stone-cold hottie.

Fortunately for the rest of the U.S. women’s softball team, it takes more than a pretty face to make major league batters flail like upended turtles.

No, striking out the world’s best baseball players requires a repertoire: knee-buckling curveballs, torso-twisting changeups, catch-‘em-if-you-can riseballs. Finch throws all of the above. Plus a few others. And so it came to pass that then-Seattle Mariner Mike Cameron, a career .247 hitter, stood in against the ponytailed hurler.

And missed.

Fouled one back.

Took a few balls.

Whiffed on a 3-2 pitch.

Sittddown!

“Cameron was pretty funny afterward,” Finch says of the confrontation, which took place during spring training last year. “He was like, ‘There’s no way a pitcher looking like you can throw like that.’”

Guess again. Finch can — and does — with alarming regularity. Looking just like that. Blessed with a howitzer arm and a bombshell mien to match, the 6-foot, 23-year-old right-hander from La Mirada, Calif., is poised to become the breakout star of an American squad seeking its third straight gold medal at the Athens Olympics.

Already, the former University of Arizona standout might be the best-known player on the U.S. roster. And not simply because she recently tossed 422/3 consecutive scoreless innings.

“She’s become an ambassador for our sport,” says U.S. teammate Leah O’Brien-Amico, a two-time Olympian. “She’s well-spoken. She’s beautiful. And she does her talking on the field. Everything she’s gotten is well-deserved.”

Even if your softball literacy begins and ends with company T-shirts and third-base kegs, you probably have heard of Finch. There’s the ESPN.com “hottest female athlete” poll. The articles in Glamour and Vanity Fair. The host gig on Fox’s “This Week in Baseball,” which saw Finch square off against a series of big-league batters, one more flummoxed than the next.

Albert Pujols. Mike Piazza. Larry Walker. Cameron can take heart: As part of a regular feature on the show, Finch faced — and fanned — some of the biggest names in the game. Los Angeles’ Paul LoDuca whiffed on three straight pitches. Wasn’t even close. On another occasion, San Francisco catcher A.J. Pierzynski gloved a half-dozen of Finch’s crackling warmup tosses, then turned to teammate and batter-to-be Barry Bonds.

“Barry,” Pierzynski cracked, “you have no chance.”

Bonds watched four balls zip past. He didn’t swing at a single one — perhaps for the sake of his sizable ego. Even so, he showed more gumption than Alex Rodriguez, who came to the plate but refused to bring his bat. Baseball’s richest man later promised Finch that if she and her teammates won gold in Greece, he would step in for real.

Of more than a dozen hitters to face Finch, only two managed solid contact. Sean Casey tapped a dribbler to first, while Scott Spiezio stroked a infield liner. The latter had the benefit of an informal big league scouting report — take two of Finch’s riseballs like aspirin, then wait for a piece of her changeup.

“[Spiezio] sat on the pitch, so that doesn’t count,” Finch protests with a laugh. “It’s all fun and games, obviously. If they had 10 or 20 at-bats off me, sure enough they’d probably hit it. They’re just not used to it.”

Finch protests too much. In softball, the pitcher’s mound is only 43 feet from home plate, not the 60 feet, 6 inches of the bigs. As such, a Finch riseball (like a fastball but moving upward) that tops out at 71 mph is equivalent to a low-90s heater. Which explains why opposing women can’t hit Finch, either.

So far during Team USA’s pre-Olympic barnstorming tour, Finch is 10-0 with a 0.11 ERA and 139 strikeouts, tops on the American staff. At last year’s Pan Am Games, she fanned 15 batters in a 2-1 semifinal win over the Dominican Republic. The U.S. squad went on to win a fifth straight Pan Am title.

With only six returning players from the 2000 Olympic squad, U.S. coach Mike Candrea will be counting on relative newcomers like Finch and fellow pitcher Cat Osterman to maintain America’s international dominance. Team USA has won five consecutive world titles, owns two Olympic golds and has been ranked No.1 in the world for 18 years running.

“Physically, [we’re] very talented,” Candrea says. “My biggest concern is that we close the gap as far as becoming a team. The expectations are very high.”

Finch has been playing softball for as long as she can remember. She started at age 5, in part because her mother, Beverly, was a Dodgers season ticketholder and avid fan.

Finch’s father, Doug, served as her pitching coach. He set up a batting cage in the family’s backyard, later adding a jerry-rigged 5-by-7 trampoline that served as a pitchback device.

On each side of the trampoline, he drew batter outlines in chalk, the better for his daughter to practice on the evenings he had to work late.

“People came up to us when Jennie was with her first major travel team, 10 and under, and would tell us that our daughter was really talented,” Beverly recalls. “We thought she was doing OK.”

Finch was better than OK. At 12, she pitched her youth squad to the 12-and-under national title in Chattanooga, Tenn.; as a high schooler, she tossed six perfect games and 13 no-hitters over three seasons, finishing her senior year as Jump magazine’s top-ranked college prospect.

Finch still wears the same No.27 she first donned as a junior all-star, a nod to the day her parents began dating.

“My family vacations were softball tournaments,” she says. “Seeing the sacrifices [my parents] made growing up, understanding what they did for me and how hard it was and seeing the benefits I have from it, it’s amazing. I think I still call them every day and ask them for a favor. … They do a great job.”

Finch did a superlative job at Arizona, winning a NCAA-record 60 consecutive games and leading the school to the 2001 national title. But her biggest diamond moment had nothing to do with softball. In the spring of 2002, Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Luis Gonzalez and a few of his teammates, including minor league pitcher Casey Daigle, dropped by Tucson’s Sancet Field to watch Finch pitch.

Smitten, Daigle couldn’t stop talking about the tall, blonde K artist. He even brought her up at a local hair salon, where Finch’s stylist happened to work. When Finch dropped in for a trim the next week, she was greeted by four dozen roses — and Daigle, who asked her to dinner.

“I said, ‘No,’” Finch recalls with a laugh. “It was just too creepy for me.”

The pair kept running into each other. Daigle persisted. Finch relented. Ultimately, she found herself blindfolded, standing on the Sancet pitching mound. She removed the mask. Flowers. Champagne. Her softball blanket. And Daigle, on one knee.

You’ve been the queen of the diamond for four years, Daigle told Finch. Now, I want you to be the queen of my heart.

“Sure enough, we’re getting married,” says Finch, whose wedding is set for October. “Can he hit my pitching? I don’t know. We’ve never done that, because it wouldn’t be a good thing. If he hit it or if I struck him out, either way it would be a tough marriage.”

The impending marriage will break the hearts of many. At the 2002 ESPY Awards, Finch turned heads in a form-fitting black dress slit well up the side; a subsequent ESPN.com poll saw Finch top download queen Anna Kournikova for the cheeky title of “hottest female athlete,” an Internet upset of Georgetown-Villanova proportions.

Just like that, the statuesque pitcher became a national sex symbol. The proof? Only this: Finch turned down an offer to pose in Playboy — she’s a devout Christian — then appeared in People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People issue. Talk about hitting for the cycle.

“It’s been great, very flattering,” Finch says. “It all came about so quickly. The last two years have been a whirlwind. Our sport needs exposure, so any we can get, positive exposure, is a good thing.”

Finch’s burgeoning fame is a much-needed boost for softball, which has struggled to capitalize on the goodwill created by the 1996 Olympic team. Two years ago, the International Olympic Committee’s program commission recommended the sport be cut from the Games; softball later was granted a stay of execution, but its international future remains murky.

Domestically, a WNBA-style league has yet to emerge, while minor and semipro leagues languish in obscurity.

“It’s unfortunate,” says Lisa Fernandez, Team USA’s veteran ace and a two-time Olympian. “Once people get an opportunity to see the game, they fall in love because of the action and the pace and the passion with which it’s played.”

Whatever happens, Finch seems assured of a future in the public eye. Beyond her stint with Fox, she’s worked for ESPN as a softball analyst and signed deals with Bolle sunglasses and Mizuno sporting goods. Tellingly, Finch is represented by Octagon, the same McLean-based sports agency that counts Kournikova as one of its star clients.

Though the pouty-lipped tennis vixen has managed to spin a titleless career into endorsement gold, Finch is determined to return from Athens with the genuine article.

“Any good opportunity will be that much better with a gold medal,” she says. “I don’t want to be just a face. I want to go out there and prove something on the field.”

Come August, she will get her chance, same way she did against Cameron. By throwing strikes. Even when you look like Finch, there’s really no way around it.

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