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Saturday, July 10, 2004
Updated: September 8, 3:26 PM ET
Yes, she can pitch

Associated Press

She's being hailed as a 21st century goddess, and Jennie Finch isn't in Greece yet.

Jennie Finch
Jennie Finch went 32-0 as a junior at Arizona and won 60 consecutive games in two seasons.

Once there, not far from the country's ancient ruins but ages removed from its mythology, this modern-day Athena with a devastating fastball will compete for an Olympic gold medal in softball.

She's a 6-foot-1 California blonde and a devout Christian with a pitching repertoire that would get Roger Clemens' attention. And though she isn't a household name just yet, her face is everywhere.

One of four pitchers on the U.S. team, Finch, 23, was on People magazine's list of the "50 Most Beautiful People'' this year. She shattered windows from a rooftop as a guest on David Letterman's "Late Show'' and co-hosted "This Week in Baseball.''

"People think she's out there because of her looks,'' U.S. outfielder Laura Berg said. "But it's not a beauty pageant. Jennie's a great ballplayer.''

And just maybe the one who helps save women's Olympic softball, making its third -- and most important -- appearance as a medal sport in the 2004 Games.

The International Olympic Committee, which has its doubts about softball's global reach, planned to review the sport's precarious future this summer.

"This is a crucial time for our sport,'' said U.S. coach Mike Candrea, also Finch's college coach at Arizona. "But we're lucky to have some very good ambassadors on this team.''

None better than Finch, who has become the face of America's team.

After some initial reluctance, Finch embraced her role as a spokesperson for the game. She's been a natural at it since picking up a ball as a little girl in La Mirada, Calif., wind-milling her right arm and making batters swing at air.

"When she was about 10, people would come up to us and say, 'She's good,'" her mother, Beverly, recalled. "Every parent feels that way about their kid. But then they'd say, 'No, she's REALLY good.' Things kind of took off from there.''

Although the spotlight has been mostly on Finch during a pre-Athens tour by the U.S. team, she does her best to share the adulation.

"Anything I get to do is only because I play on this team,'' said Finch, who has brought several of her teammates along on TV appearances. "Whatever attention we get for the sport helps. I love being a role model and connecting with young girls.''

The squad, whose stiffest medal competition in the eight-team Olympic field will come from Japan, Australia, China and Canada, have played in front of sellout crowds everywhere.

And at each stop there has been a sizable contingent of ponytailed young girls who scream Finch's name and trace "We Luv U Jennie'' in the dust on the team's chartered bus.

"It's like we're rock stars,'' pitcher Lori Harrigan said. "We call it 'The Jennie Factor.'"

While she's flattered by her growing legion of admirers, Finch is uncomfortable with some labels.

"I'm not sure I like sex symbol,'' she says, embarrassed. "I don't know what a sex symbol is. I think of a pop star, like Britney Spears. That's so not me.''

During the interview, she politely apologizes as her cell phone rings -- again. Taking it out of her purse, the recognizable strains of the "Star Spangled Banner'' fill a portion of the tranquil hotel lobby in Charlotte, N.C.

"Beyonce,'' Finch said, identifying the pop singer as well as her Super Bowl rendition of the anthem. "I love that version.''

On Oct. 30, she'll marry Casey Daigle, a pitcher in the Arizona Diamondbacks' organization who blindfolded Finch before proposing to her on a pitcher's mound.

"He said, 'You've been the queen of the diamond for four years and now I want you to be the queen of my heart,''' Finch said. "I know, it sounds super corny, but it was cool.''

While Finch's life seems to be part fairy tale, it hasn't affected who she is or how others treat her.

To the star-studded U.S. team, which includes six members from the 2000 squad that captured gold in Sydney, Finch is just one of the girls.

"She hasn't let all the attention get to her head,'' third baseman Crystl Bustos said. "She's really grounded. She's very family oriented.

"And,'' Bustos added, "she's good. People ask me, 'Is she really any good?' And I'm like, 'No, she's great. She can throw.'''

On the mound, Finch is all business. Before each pitch, she recites a passage from the Bible -- Philippians 4:13 -- greets strangers with a warm smile and jokes with teammates.

Staring at catcher Jenny Topping's glove, Finch, who went 32-0 as a junior at Arizona and won 60 straight games over two seasons, rocks back before beginning her windup.

Then, as if fired from a cannon, Finch blasts forward off the rubber (43 feet from home plate), releasing the ball and a small yelp as the yellow projectile rockets toward its target at 70 mph. Because of her long stride, Finch is just 35 feet away by the time the ball leaves her right hand.

"That's why she's so tough,'' Topping said. "She's standing on top of you. She also has pinpoint accuracy. She can put the ball anywhere she wants.''

Through June, Finch was 13-0 with 180 strikeouts in 82 2-3 innings and an absurd 0.08 ERA for the U.S. team, which is 42-0 on its North American tour and unbeaten in its last 156 pre-Olympic games since 1996.

Things won't be so easy in Greece. Four years ago, the U.S. team took a 110-game winning streak to Australia before losing three straight and nearly missing the medal round.

Finch knows what lies ahead.

"Every country has gotten better,'' Finch said. "Italy has three American pitchers. The Greek team has 15 Americans. We know going onto the field wearing "USA'' that we're going to get everyone's best game.

"We're the team to beat, and we wouldn't have it any other way.''