“Softball’s Nolan Ryan” visits Athletic Forum

An Olympic and NCAA College World Series champion who made it cool to throw like a girl left her mark on Dallas during the Sept. 25 Guaranty Bank SMU Athletic Forum. Jennie Finch, whose pitches come in at 71 miles per hour, discussed her career during a luncheon at the Hilton Anatole Hotel. After her Athletic Forum appearance, Finch visited Garland High School – home of the Owls, Texas’ reigning 5A state softball champions – for a pitching demonstration. Read more.

Widely regarded as the most famous softball player of all time, Finch began playing the game at the age of 5. She played for 4 years with the University of Arizona Wildcats, where she set the NCAA record for consecutive wins with 60 and threw 7 no-hitters. The team went to the NCAA College World Series every year in which Finch played and won the title in 2001. At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Finch pitched for a USA team that won every game on its way to the gold medal. Recently, she was selected to the 2008 team that will play in Beijing.

During the past three seasons, Finch has pitched for the Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch league and was the league’s co-pitcher of the year in 2005. She hosts a segment on the FOX Network’s “This Week in Baseball” in which she often pitches to – and strikes out – major-league hitters with a 71-mph riseball that equals a fastball of nearly 100 miles per hour in baseball. She is married to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Casey Daigle; they have one son, Ace, born in 2006.

Where did you get your competitive drive?

I credit that to my two older brothers. I was always trying to keep up with them. And there was one loss in 10-and-under that I never got over. I started pitching when I was 8 and competed in my first national championship when I was 10. We went all that way and lost in the final game, and I remember coming home and telling my dad, “I never want to lose again.” From then on, that was where my drive and motivation came from.

Who were your inspirations as an athlete?

Growing up in Southern California, I was a big Dodgers fan. Orel Hersheiser and Steve Sax were who I wanted to be like when I was younger. And when softball was added as an Olympic sport in 1996, that was when I had my first dream of being an Olympian. I went to the USA Softball tryouts at age 16 that year, and in the game I pitched, I had to face Dot Richardson, who is one of the greatest softball players of all time. On my first pitch, she just drilled it, and then she just kept running and running. All I could think was, “Please don’t let my first pitch be an in-the-park home run.” But then the umpire called a foul ball, by inches. I was so relieved.

What was your college athletic experience like?

I spent four of the greatest years of my life at the University of Arizona. Just being around a college community and athletic department like that, that sense of family you carry with you, gave me a true appreciation of college athletics. It’s very special and unique.

The growth of our sport during that time was amazing, too. When I was a first-year student, we played maybe three or four televised games. By my senior year, all our games were televised on either ESPN or ESPN2.

Can you describe your Olympic experience?

I can remember watching the 1996 and 2000 Games and dreaming of wearing that uniform, with the “USA” across my chest. We prepared like crazy for the 2004 Games because we wanted to go in and not just win, but dominate. For a while we thought we were a little crazy to prepare so much, but by the time we got there, we couldn’t wait to let all that hard work out on the field.

We were the first team to check into the Olympic Village, because we were so determined to be the most prepared. At the time, there wasn’t even grass there. No towels, no shower curtains, nothing. Each day, we were saying, “Oh, there’s grass today! Now there are trees!” When the other athletes arrived, it was amazing just to walk through and see people like Andy Roddick and the Williams sister and Yao Ming – these terrific athletes that you’ve looked up to for so long, and there you are with them. It was such a healthy, competitive global environment that you felt grateful and blessed just to be there. And to be on that medal podium with your team, with so many great athletes who have paved your way – there’s no better feeling than that. To have it all come together like that was pretty magical.

You host the Jennie Challenge on “This Week in Baseball” and have struck out some heavy hitters from the major leagues. Have you ever pitched against your husband?

We’ve never done that, and we never will. There’s no way we would go there. We’re both too competitive! We’d never let each other live that down.

Do you have any superstitions?

My college roommate and I used to spray our jerseys with perfume before we took the field. That, and I always warm up for 27 minutes, because that was my jersey number at Arizona.

If you weren’t a professional softball player, what do you think you’d be?

Maybe a schoolteacher. I’ve always loved working with kids.

What’s the best thing about being a mom?

Ace doesn’t care if I win or lose. He’s happy to see me no matter what.