On Saturday afternoon, Jennie Finch stood on the concourse of The Ballpark at Rosemont chatting with a small group of today’s softball stars before a game. Maybe it was her platinum blonde hair, tied in a ponytail, or her imposing height, or the fact that she remains, two years after retirement, the greatest legend in the history of women’s softball, but Finch seemed to radiate.
In person, as on TV, Finch, at age 31, remains a striking figure, with the sort of magnetism some people seem born with. She came to Rosemont over the weekend not to play softball, but to announce the National Pro Fastpitch championship, the playoff tournament for the league’s four teams, on ESPN.
Finch, like Michael Phelps, is so synonymous with her sport that it’s hard to imagine one without the other. Even now, the Chicago Bandits said her jersey flies off the shelves, and she has her own apparel line that includes everything from hair ribbons to baseball gloves.
Finch played six seasons for the hometown Bandits in various Illinois locales, but never in Rosemont, where the Bandits moved in 2011. The street outside the stadium is named Jennie Finch Way.
Hours after first catching a glimpse of her, I stood with Finch outside the press box overlooking the handsome little field, as the Bandits played the USSSA Pride from Kissimmee, Fla. in Game 1 of the championship series. Out beyond the right field fence, cars swooshed by on I-294, their lights brightening the suburban night.
A shimmering cross hung perfectly at the base of Finch’s neck. A wedding ring the size of a marble glistened on her left hand. I asked her if she worried about whether the sport suffered in her absence.
“It’s not that I think about it without me, but I worry about the future for sure,” she said. “There are a lot of young girls out there dreaming to play.”
Finch retired to be a mother. She has a six-year old son, Ace Shane, and a one-year-old, Diesel Dean. Last month, she announced she is pregnant again. Finch is married to Casey Daigle, a former minor league baseball pitcher. The family lives on a farm in Sulphur, La.
“It’s exactly what I wanted,” she said, before adding that it’s also good to still be involved in the sport that made her famous.
Her shadow still looms large over the sport. “Jennie had very long coattails and a lot of girls climbed aboard,” said NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf , as she scanned the near-capacity crowd of almost 1,500 in Rosemont. ”What you’re seeing has a lot to do with Jennie.”
Finch, born in suburban Los Angeles, was winning national softball titles by 12. At the Univesity of Arizona, she once won 60 straight games and added a national championship before leading Team USA to Olympic gold in 2004 and silver four years later.
For most of her entire adult life, Finch has been a role model for young girls, one of –if not the—most visible female athletes of her generation. When she retired, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial headlined, “Be Like…Jennie.”
Finch said she gets hundreds of messages—mostly on Twitter—each day from young softball players.
“Every single one of those girls is important to me and this sport,” she said with a smile. “I want to make sure I remain an ambassador for the game.”
At the post-game press conference, the Bandits’ winning pitcher Monica Abbott, who gave up only a solo homer in the 2-1 win, fielded questions from a smattering of media set up in a tent beyond the outfield fence. After a few comments about the game, she was asked what it meant to have Finch on hand to watch her play.
“It’s always great to see Jennie,” Abbott responded. “She’s such an inspiration to the entire softball community.”
Finch, now a media member herself, was seated in the back row of the audience. She raised her hand, thanked Abbott, and promised to buy her dinner for her sweet answer. Then she turned serious, and said, “I’m sorry I have to ask this, but what was the pitch you gave up for a home run?”
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BEN STRAUSS, Senior Editor, is a writer born, raised and living in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times. Reach him on Twitter @bstrauss1.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house; photo courtesy Dina T. Kwit.