The most famous softball player in history is coming to North Augusta this weekend, spreading her knowledge and passion for a game she hopes to reintroduce to the biggest global stage.
Even the most casual fan will remember Jennie Finch. If not for her record 60 consecutive victories in college at Arizona or the gold and silver medals she won at the Olympics or the two perfect games she pitched for the Chicago Bandits, then maybe for the 2005 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue or People magazine’s 50 most beautiful people in 2004 or the 2003 election as “Most Attractive Female Athlete” in an ESPN online poll.
Finch’s talent, looks and personality are credited for helping transform her sport, and now retired she hopes to give back with 10 softball camps around the country each year with her own staff and families pitching in.
At least 150 girls have already signed up for Finch’s two-day camp at Riverview Park on Saturday (8 a.m.-4 p.m.) and Sunday (9 a.m.-3 p.m.), coming from all over the Carolinas from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach. Walk-ins are welcome to sign up when it starts Saturday (or on-line at JennieFinch.com). The $175 fee covers the camp, lunches, T-shirts and a picture session with Finch.
“It’s a lot of fun and since I’m retired it’s a way to give back to a game that’s given me so much,” Finch said from her home in Arizona of the camps where she teaches fundamentals as well as inspiration about having dreams and going for them and overcoming fears and failure.
Despite being officially retired since 2010, Finch remains a popular draw to the young girls who still wear the glitter headbands that she made famous.
“The longer I’m away from a game they less they’ll have seen me play,” she said. “But the World Cup was on ESPN in 2010, so most of them can go back on the internet and pretty much see every game.”
One of those archival highlights was the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, where Finch and Team USA won its last gold medal. The IOC decided in 2005 to drop softball (and baseball) from the Olympics after 2008 in Beijing, China. It was a devastating blow to Finch and her compatriots.
“It’s so important because in women’s sports we weren’t used to opportunities being taken away,” she said. “Things only got bigger and better and greater. So that was definitely hard to swallow.”
Ironically, one of the potential elements that might have caused softball to be dropped from the Olympics was the dominance of Finch and her American teammates globally. Team USA had never won anything but gold in the Olympics through 2004. Finch won two games in Athens, Greece, as the Americans outscored the opposition 51-1.
But in their final Olympic appearance in 2008, the Americans were upset by Japan, 3-1, and had to tearfully settle for silver.
Finch didn’t pitch in that gold-medal game, but the loss left a bitter final taste. She was distraught after the loss, believing they failed all the American women who came before.
“I feel like we let USA softball down,” she said then. “Many women have worn this uniform and accepted nothing but gold.”
But she was more upset for the game as a whole, started her crusade to keep softball in the Games immediately during the postgame interviews.
“Over 140 countries play this game,” she said then. “You know, you don’t have to be 6-foot-4. You don’t have to be 200 pounds. We have all different shapes and sizes. The sport tests so many athletic abilities, from hand-eye coordination, to speed, to agility, to quickness. We’re finally at the pinnacle, we’ve finally been established. Please don’t take this away.”
Finch helped crusade for softball’s return, but it finished third behind golf and rugby for 2016. The softball federation is teaming up with baseball as partners to try to get both reinstated to the Olympics in 2020.
“I think we’re hoping the notoriety of baseball and its players coming together as one with us will help,” Finch said. “You want to pave the way like women did before. … We’re hoping it can shine more light on the sport of softball.”
The combined international federations haven’t approached Finch yet to be a part of the pitch to the IOC, but she’s ready to do whatever it takes.
“I’m willing to do whatever is asked to help,” she said.
In the meantime, the former ballgirl at UCLA as a kid who grew up to marry former major leaguer Casey Daigle serves as an ESPN analyst and runs camps around the nation.
Finch also co-wrote a book in 2011 – Throw Like a Girl: How to Dream Big and Believe in Yourself.
“It totally amazes me what softball gave me,” she said. “Giving me the opportunity to make a living and play and to have the platform now, it’s been incredible. A dream come true, no doubt about it.”
With two sons age 6 (Ace) and 16 months (Diesel) already and a daughter due in January, Finch is content with her life as a mother and softball endorser. She doesn’t really have time to miss the competition.
“My plate is full, my heart is full,” she said. “I love this stage in my life. I’m grateful for the opportunities that I have to help others.”