Jennie Finch is among the most decorated softball pitchers in history: national champion at Arizona, multiple time All-American, NCAA record for consecutive wins, her number retired by the school, Olympic gold medalist in 2004 and silver medalist in 2008.
Those accomplishments have taken Finch to becoming the face of women’s softball in the United States and a national profile beyond her sport.
She retired in 2010 after a professional career and remains an advocate for female athletes and teacher of her sport through camps, clinics, speaking engagements and appearances. Finch’s biggest role, though, is mom. She and husband Casey Diagle, a former major league pitcher, have two sons, Ace and Diesel and a daughter, Paisley, and live in Louisiana.
As part of Girls Sports Month, Finch spoke to USA TODAY High School Sports about the value of athletics, the task of being a sports parent, the challenges of a women’s professional league and more.
Q: At what point in your life did you know athletics was going to be a big part of who you are and what you do?
A: Probably by the time I was 10. We went to the national championship tournament playing girls from all over the country. Back in the day, there was one national event with the top 32 teams. That was when I started playing travel ball, and it became a more serious thing. I knew then that softball could be something special for me. We ended up getting second place that year. I thought maybe one day we could be the national champion.
Q: You played a number of other sports when you were younger. Given the era of specialization now, what did you gain from playing multiple sports and what are your thoughts on that trend?
A: That was huge, especially in those years where you’re growing, trying to figure out your body, increase muscle memory and stability. Playing basketball and volleyball helped me develop more athletic skill. Our athletes are starting at a younger age playing one sport.
When I played volleyball and basketball, it was an outlet for me. Yes, it was sports, it was athletic and I’m competitive, but it wasn’t as intense. You’re still trying to win, but it was a nice break.
Injuries are on the rise and a lot of it is to due to overuse. We were driving home at 2:30 at night when my son – who is 9 — is playing travel baseball. I said to my husband, ‘Are we crazy for thinking, Is this crazy? Our 9-year-old is out until 2:30 on a school night. This is unreal.’ We weren’t playing seven or eight games a weekend when we were his age.
Q Girls participation in high school sports increased for the 26th year in a row and is now at an all-time high. What’s the message from that?
A: It shows the increased opportunity to play. I always tell young girls, back in the day, ‘You didn’t hear about any female athletes until the Olympics. Then you would.’ Now you can see in any sport a female athlete represented. It is exciting to see so many young girls involved and all the things that come with it — self confidence, self esteem, improved GPA, seeing their body as a tool and being empowered by their strength. Society has changed and the opportunity is there for young girls. There are so many beneficial factors to playing sports.
Q: Has being a parent changed your view on the way youth sports are run — whether it’s the way parents act or how much is demanded of the kids — and their value? Last time we talked you mentioned that Ace was 9 and that you let him lead which sports he wanted to play.
A: This year he played football and he’s going to play basketball, which he fell in love with. He played travel baseball. The decisions are completely run by him. One of the other parents told me that she feels sorry for him because of the expectations (with Casey and I being athletes). Hopefully there are no expectations because he’s 9.
Having been through it, I’ve seen that parents can drive their kids away from the game. We want to let him try anything and everything and let his passion drive him — whether he’s passionate about sports or something else. Whether you’re an Olympic athlete or a recreational athlete, the life lessons are still there. We hope he gets the most from his experiences.
We’re learning along with him. We want to give him the best opportunity to do his best. It’s a lot easier being on the athlete side. When you’re a parent, you have to manage the emotions involved and figuring it all out and deal with the other parents.
(Ace’s team recently) won a tournament and they won a ring and he said, ‘I already have three rings.’ There was an older kid who I heard say, ‘This is my 28th ring.’ It’s like, Wow, this is unreal. When did it come to this?’ It’s just so wild. I hate to wait until college to get my first ring. There is that much money in these organization that run that they have these rings.
The boys have a world series event here in our hometown. Some of the coaches picked our tournaments based on the prizes. They see which tournaments have the best trophies, t-shirts and gift bags. It’s insane.
A 14-year-old is committed to college. In four years, Ace could be recruited. I’ve heard parents say, ‘We have to push our son hard to get the experience so he can be seen.’
Q: You famously struck out Albert Pujols and went on the strikeout tour with This Week in Baseball. As you look back on it years later, what was the significance of you being able to strike out men, if any, or was it more a means to help promote softball?
A: It was a culmination of so many things. The one word is opportunity. Having Major League Baseball Productions go out on a limb when I had no experience and put me in that environment and atmosphere, was such an amazing opportunity to showcase our sport.
We were able to show that our sport is similar to baseball in what we do and how we do it. How do you make the ball move like that? It’s like Randy Johnson’s slider. It presented a platform that we never had before. I got to go out at shortstop and work on shortstop drills with Jimmy Rollins and catching drills with A.J. Pierzynski and represent my sport.
The first interview we did in terms of guys facing me was supposed to be with Mike Cameron, but the ownership and coaches said, ‘We are not going to let him swing. He’s going to get hurt.’ Bob Melvin then came out and I struck him out. So then Mike Cameron came out and said,’ OK, I’m doing this.’ At first, I wondered if this was going to work and whether players were going to be open to this, but we created it from there. It came right after the 2000 Olympics and the college game was on the rise.
It was a great moment to truly have a platform that girls had never had before and attract crossover baseball fans.
Q: A women’s professional league for softball hasn’t really taken off. Why?
A: It’s really been interesting. I had the opportunity to play in Chicago and we were at Benedictine University and packed the the house. We’d go to the other places and that wasn’t the case. Location is key, marketing is probably the biggest hurdle because often there is not the financial backing to market these pro leagues. In Chicago, we worked hard to get on Comcast and did commercials.
We’d be out on the road having dinner and people would see me and say, ‘Jennie, what are you doing here? I’d say, ‘There’s a pro softball league two blocks from here’ and they’d say that they never knew.
It’s the combination of finding the right time and fan base and it also takes time for any pro league to be successful. If people don’t know about it and there’s no advertising money, it won’t happen.
The other thing is softball athletes are playing intensively in the summer on the weekends, so you are competing with your fan base who would watch. Your fans are at their own fields playing the game.
Q: What advice would you give young women about their athletic careers and its role in their lives — not particular to softball but sports in general?
A: It’s always having a balance. If you don’t have that balance with faith, family, schoolwork and sports, it can be rough. Also, the student comes before athlete. Without your grades, there is no opportunity to play at the next level.
I also always say, ‘Make sure every workout counts.’ You can be good or be great. Greatness might be only 80 percent today, but give it everything you have every day.
And don’t forget the opportunity you have or take it for granted. You walked in with two bats and a bat bag that probably costs a couple hundred dollars total. There were national teams we played with only two bats for the entire team. Getting the chance to play is a gift.