Finch ready for Athens games
The softball standout has left her ego behind as she sets her sights on the gold.
By CHRIS DAVIS
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Is Jennie Finch's toughest challenge ahead of her?
A pair of 15-year-olds believe so.
Team USA's 53-game "Aiming for Athens" tour was arduous, and the Olympics themselves won't be a cakewalk.
But in the eyes of Lizzie Gajewski and Abby Winter, Finch has another major hurdle.
The two Finch fans from Wasco, Ill., have laid down a challenge to the former University of Arizona All-America pitcher on her Web site.
"We can hit you like you've never been hit before," said one of the girls in the question-and-answer section at www.jenniefinch.net.
Brazen? Yes. But the pair believe they've figured out Finch and want to prove they can hit their idol.
"I thought it was really funny and clever," Finch said in a telephone interview a few days before leaving for Athens, Greece, and the 2004 Summer Games. "It was a good challenge."
Such a response is typical of Finch: positive, encouraging and without a drop of ego.
Even after striking out a handful of major-league All-Stars, including Albert Pujols and Mike Piazza during a celebrity softball game, Finch moves away from any opportunity to be arrogant.
"That's just Jennie," says longtime friend and former teammate Toni Mascarenas. "She's always been that way since I've known her."
Finch grew into one of Southern Arizona's darlings in her four years as a Wildcat. Not only did she sport world-class talent as a softball player, winning 119 games and recording a school-record 1,028 strikeouts, she was -- and still is -- striking.
Though it took a tad longer, national recognition followed.
Numerous pictures of her on the diamond and at the 2002 ESPY Awards on ESPN's Web site spurred Finch to a surprising win over Anna Kournikova on the site's "Who's Hottest?" poll in 2003.
Finch "couldn't believe it," Mascarenas said. "I said, 'you're prettier than Anna Kournikova,' and she said, 'yeah, right.' It was like she was oblivious to the whole thing."
America finally learned what many people in Tucson had grown accustomed to.
But to Finch, the fame is secondary, and beauty encompasses much more than looks.
She performed stunts on late-night talk shows -- such as pitching a ball through a window from the roof of a building for the "Late Show with David Letterman."
She is one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" for 2004 and graced the pages of Glamour magazine in a Versace dress and Manolo Blahnik sandals.
But Finch is, and always has been, a softball player.
"I'm an athlete," said Finch. "Softball is where this all came from, and it's what I train six or seven hours a day for."
Those hours are also what Finch describes as her release from the outside attention that stretches her in a myriad of directions.
"It has been tough," said Finch. "You don't want to turn down opportunities and exposure for your sport. But when I'm on the field with my teammates, there's no better place to be than training hard with them."
More than two years have passed since Finch left the University of Arizona, but not a lot has changed for her on the diamond.
Batters still look a day behind when trying to connect with her riseball. And she is still driven by an undying passion for the game.
But now, the game is no longer a big part of her life -- it is her life.
"I'm not going to lie; it's not easy," Finch said. "You wake up, train, then play that night. Then you wake up, travel and practice when you arrive.
"But being in front of 5,000 people every other night is energizing, and I've truly been blessed by God."
She also has seen the fruits of those six and seven-hour days on the diamond.
A 15-0 record in 16 starts and an 0.27 ERA in the USA's pre-Olympic tour makes a case that she's exceeded what she accomplished as one of the top pitchers in college softball.
Casey Daigle, a pitcher for the AAA Tucson Sidewinders, is someone who would know. The 6-foot-5-inch right-hander, who also has played for the Arizona Diamondbacks this season, says his future wife has gotten better.
"Her pitching has improved greatly," Daigle said. "Her stuff is about the same, but she's smarter in the way she goes about setting up hitters."
If anything, Finch says playing for one of the nation's top programs made the transition to Olympic competition much smoother.
"The same bull's-eye is still there, except that it's bigger -- especially in going to other countries," said Finch. "They're out to get us, and we're going to get everyone's best game."
Team USA has been up to the challenge, going 53-0 in its warm-up tour.
It's no secret that the team hopes to mine gold in Athens.
"Anything less than a gold medal will be a disappointment," Finch said.