Sometimes all it takes is one transcendent player to insinuate a sport into the national consciousness. For softball, that player was 29-year-old Jennie Finch, the sun-kissed, will-melt-your-popsicle, 6'2" righthander who announced last week that she'll retire in August at the end of the National Pro Fastpitch League season to spend more time with her husband, Astros righthander Casey Daigle, and their four-year-old son, Ace.
At times Finch was so dominant that it seemed as if she were playing in a video game. In 2001 and '02 at Arizona she windmilled her way to an NCAA record 60 straight wins. In international play her rise-ball, which reached 70 mph (from 43 feet, the equivalent of a 98-mph major league fastball), was so overpowering that a foul ball could elicit cheers from an opposing bench. At the 2004 and '08 Olympics, during which Team USA won gold and silver, Finch went 4--0 in 19 scoreless innings, fanning 27. In five seasons with the Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch League, Finch is 32--5. During '06 and '07 she gave up a total of two earned runs in 73 1/3 innings.
With her striking looks and down-to-earth personality, Finch became a crossover hit, appearing everywhere from The Apprentice (she was fired after four weeks) to Letterman and the SI Swimsuit Issue. In '05 Finch hosted a regular segment on MLB's This Week in Baseball in which she faced big leaguers. Said Mike Cameron, one of her whiff victims, "There's no way a pitcher looking like you can throw like that."
Finch still plans to be an ambassador for the sport, but said that it gets "harder and harder every year" to be away from her family. She will remain the face of softball. "People noticed women's soccer when they noticed Mia Hamm, and that was Jennie for softball," says NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf. "I'd like to thank God that she's a softball player."