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Bandits' Finch stays for the love of the game
By John Radtke | Daily Herald Staff

Jennie Finch delivers against Japan during the Women's Softball World Championships in 2006.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 6/19/2009 12:00 AM

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It would have been easy enough for Jennie Finch to walk away.

The icon of women's fastpitch softball really didn't have anything more to achieve. She'd won a collegiate national championship, gold and silver Olympic medals and a professional championship.

Her husband, Casey Daigle, was fighting to come back from injury and return to the major leagues as a pitcher. Their son, Ace, was turning 3 years old and could use mom's attention.

Yes, it would have been easy enough for the world's softball icon to call Chicago Bandits owner Bill Sokolis and coach Mickey Dean and tell them thanks, but no thanks.

But that's not the approach that made Jennie Finch the softball and women's sports icon she is.

So why did the 6-foot-2 right-handed pitcher come back to the Bandits, back to Elgin, back to the National Pro Fastpitch circuit, a league that certainly doesn't pay in the six figures?

"It's the love of competition, the love of my teammates and the love of this game," Finch said recently prior to a Bandits game at Judson University. "Since I stepped back on the field there hasn't been a second thought about not playing. I'm a wife and a mother and it's complicated, but I'm continuing to do what I love."

Finch, who threw a perfect game Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Force, has been the world's most identifiable softball player for most of this decade. She led Arizona to the 2001 NCAA national championship and a runner-up finish in 2002. She won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2003 Pan American Games as well as the 2004 Olympics. Since then she has competed in both the NPF and on Team USA and was a member of the silver medal team in Beijing in 2008, where she was 2-0 and didn't allow an earned run.

Having done commentary for ESPN, been a co-host for This Week in Baseball, and appeared on Donald Trump's The Apprentice show, her off-the-field income pads her bank account far more than the NPF ever will.

But playing pro softball isn't about money to Finch, who married Daigle in 2005 and will turn 29 in September.

"It's been so incredible to see the game change throughout my career and it's awesome to be back in this league," she said. "To see these incredible women compete is something else. They don't take normal jobs because their hearts are invested in this game. To see all the young girls in the stands dreaming about wearing a Bandits uniform - that's what it's all about."

Bandits head coach Mickey Dean, whose team is the defending NPF champion, knows full well he has the crown jewel of players wearing his team's black and orange, and he appreciates every minute of it.

"She's just so genuine," Dean said. "She's just a great person. When younger players come in they see Jennie and they are kind of intimidated at first. But they find she's easy to talk to and she makes the atmosphere so relaxing. And she works hard when she's here."

Dean also says Finch is better today than ever.

"She's smarter and she manages the game extremely well," he said. "Young pitchers want to throw it by every batter, but she's learned how to mix it up extremely well. She uses her off-speed pitches more now and her experience is definitely her strong point."

Finch realizes the NPF is a struggling league. Attendance is mediocre in most markets and two franchise owners pulled the plug on their teams prior to this season, although the Washington Glory franchise is now the USSSA Pride, leaving the league with five teams.

"Consistency is the main struggle," said Finch, who stays in a dorm room with her teammates at Judson during Bandits' home series. "I came from the University of Arizona and that tradition and we played in front of 3,500 people every night. That proved to me it's a sustainable product. We were in Lisle (at Benedictine University) and the move (to Elgin) hurt us some because we had to start over.

"We love Elgin and Elgin loves us. But we need people in the seats. If this doesn't work, it won't be because we didn't try. Bill Sokolis has given us everything we need to succeed. This campus is beautiful and this team is amazing. One time out here and you're hooked."

Still, Finch admits the grind of the season wears on her at times.

"It does, but it's living in the moment and enjoying whatever environment you're in," she said. "I was skeptical about I'd react to coming back. The Beijing tour was not easy. I think I saw Casey three times that whole time. I wasn't sure I wanted to make the sacrifices. But I knew within five minutes of being back on this field that I have more to give to this game.

"You look to your left and you see Stacy May. You look to your right and you see Nicole Trimboli. They inspire one to keep putting on the uniform. It may be my face but it's them who are the true ambassadors of the game. People love to watch great softball. It's just a matter of getting it out there."