When Jennie Finch was growing up in Orange County, California, she was a big sports fan, especially of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But the little girl who would grow up to become a college and Olympic softball star — the most recognizable name in her sport — also had a constant desire to see news about female athletes and learn their stories. Often, they were hard to find.
“I remember getting just so hungry for (stories about) any female athlete,” she said. “We’d look at the last part of the sports section to see maybe one article on a female athlete, and my parents would always cut it out for me. And through Sports Illustrated and everything you’d have to hunt and search. When there was a female, I would be like a sponge and soak it all in.”
For years, Finch was able to be that face in the paper or magazine for girls in her wake. At Arizona she was a three-time All-America pitcher and first baseman. Then in the Olympic Games, she helped Team USA win a gold medal at Athens in 2004 and a silver medal at Beijing in 2008. From 2005 to 2010, she pitched for the Chicago Bandits in the National Pro Fastpitch league. She retired as a player in 2010, but has continued to host softball camps and clinics.
Now Finch, 36, is excited about her next opportunity to help girls have opportunities to grow in sports, this time as Major League Baseball’s first Youth Softball Ambassador.
In that role, Finch will support MLB’s youth programs by taking part in initiatives designed to grow softball at the amateur and youth levels. She says the fact Major League Baseball is taking the lead is significant.
“What a great way to show young girls that their sport matters, by MLB really stepping up to the plate and making it official and having an ambassador now for our sport,” she said.
Her primary goal will be to help softball at the grassroots level. She’ll also pitch in to help young athletes pursue baseball, a growing option for girls. It’s something she never had the opportunity to do.
“It’s pretty exciting that it’s an option for young women, girls, that do want to play baseball, that grew up playing baseball and love the game,” she said. “We’ll see what the future holds.”
Among the events Finch is scheduled to participate in are the “Trail Blazer” Girls Baseball Tournament, the Softball Breakthrough Series, Play Ball Park as part of MLB’s All-Star Week, the Elite Development Invitational and the softball portion of the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program in cities across the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.
In 2016, Finch had a chance to take part in the Softball Breakthrough Series event in Houston and could see what it accomplished. That event invited 50 high school softball players from around the country to work on their games while getting exposure to college coaches at what she explained was essentially a training camp.
“What an amazing opportunity that was to get out there, and these girls were so hungry for the sport,” she said. “Here we are in Houston, it’s the middle of summer, it’s beyond hot and humid and we’re on our water break, and they’re asking us for more ground balls. … It was so fun. And to be able to witness some of the girls actually getting letters from some local colleges who came out to see them play was really neat.”
Finch said it’s a natural partnership between MLB and USA Softball. It’s a “brother-sister sport” pairing that makes sense, she said, sort of like the WNBA-NBA partnership.
She’s particularly excited to provide instruction at RBI clinics.
“A good share of that program is young girls, so what a great way to put a face on that,” she said.
Finch believes this ambassadorship comes at a good time, too, because of the reinstatement of softball and baseball into the Olympic Games in 2020 in Tokyo. Both were omitted from the 2012 and 2016 Games. Finch was saddened by the decision to eject softball, which was part of the Games from 1996-2008. The Americans won three straight golds before settling for silver behind Japan in 2008.
“It was gut-wrenching, heartbreaking,” she said. “Here we were, our sport had not been more popular and had been getting more attention than we ever had, and our athletes are being able to do things they’ve never been able to do before, and then we just got wiped. It was a huge blow.”
Now, she’s happy to be able to participate in the game again at a time when the sport can regain its momentum.
“We couldn’t be reinstated in a better country than the atmosphere we will have in Tokyo in 2020,” she said.
Finch, who is married to former major league pitcher Casey Daigle and has two young sons and a daughter, is eager to get started as ambassador.
“I’m thrilled they’re welcoming us in,” she said of MLB. “I think it’s making a big statement as far as getting young girls actively involved.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.