An Exclusive Q&A With Softball Legend Jennie Finch
Softball legend Jennie Finch was an All-American pitcher with a 72 mile-per-hour fastball at the University of Arizona. She won Olympic gold in Athens in 2004, silver in Beijing in 2008 and played for the Chicago Bandits in the National Pro Fastpitch league. Now, at 38, she continues to be an ambassador for the game and for female athletes in general. Softball America caught up with Finch to get her thoughts on everything from Danielle Gibson’s home-run cycle and bat flips to the National Pro Fastpitch league and softball’s standing in the Olympic Games.
Softball America: On February 24th, Arkansas sophomore Danielle Gibson hit a home run cycle. How difficult is that given the quality of pitching at the D-I level?
Jennie Finch: First of all, why pitch to her after the second at bat? And by the fourth time, why are they still pitching to her? But it’s incredible, and the fact that it has never happened before validates the greatness of it. How many stars have to be aligned? She was probably thinking she had a free pass to first base in those later at bats. I’ve had a few amazing games when the ball looked like a beach ball and I can only imagine that’s how she was feeling that day. To hit a home run or two and to hit the ball hard in every at bat is amazing, but to hit it out four times? It’s an amazing feat.
SA: What would you say to those who trolled ESPN’s Instagram post about Gibson’s achievement with negative comments about softball and Gibson’s achievement?
JF: Trolls are all they will ever be. They want a reaction and that’s what they get. The internet has made it that much easier to be a bully behind a computer screen and never show your face. How many of them have ever hit a home run? How many have ever actually been to a softball game or even watched one on TV? The web gems are right up there with baseball. Everything that happens in baseball happens in softball.
Yes, the dimensions of the game and the distances are different, but it’s the same thing as far as those incredible plays or doing something amazing like hitting four home runs for the cycle. If anything, they should just appreciate it as an athletic achievement, not as a baseball or softball thing. Being able to accomplish that and have everything fall in line for that to be possible? If you’re a fan of any kind of sport, you should be able to appreciate that.
SA: A softball thrown in the 70s is the equivalent of a baseball thrown in the 90s. As part of the Jennie Challenge on This Week in Baseball, you struck out Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds, along with many other MLB players. What do you think that did for the perception of softball as a sport?
JF: The best part of being able to throw to those MLB players is that it gave us a platform and the stage to showcase what we can do and the abilities we have. To have an MLB player see one of my pitches and say, “That’s a Randy Johnson slider right there,” is great. We knew what we could do, what are game was about, what pitching was and what women can do, but it took that platform and that stage to really validate it in a way and to spread the word.
Granted, those players are not used to hitting from 38 feet by the time I release the ball, but the fact is that the timing is right up there with a 98 mile-per-hour fastball. As a sports fan, hopefully you can appreciate that. To have a Major League player stand in there and look at a rise ball and say, “That’s unbelievable. That’s unhittable.” and then freeze him with a changeup 15 miles per hour slower that looks just like a fastball coming out of the hand? It gave us the platform to really showcase what we do. It seems like everywhere I go, someone mentions the time I pitched to Albert Pujols on This Week in Baseball. Hopefully, a current player will get that same kind of opportunity.
SA: Why do you think softball players still don’t get the respect they deserve as athletes?
JF: First of all, it also doesn’t help that the sport is called “softball” because the ball an the sport certainly are not soft. Fastpitch definitely describes the game a bit better. But people aren’t educated enough to appreciate the sport for what it is. In baseball, they don’t have to make a play to get a guy out in 2.4 seconds going to first base the way we do. Yes, it’s shorter dimensions, but there has to be an appreciation factor for that kind of reaction time if you know the game.
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SA: You have participated in many of MLB’s Play Ball Events. You have your own camp and tournament and you speak all over the country. Why is it so important to you to continue to help grow the game?
JF: I feel so blessed to have the platform. There is nothing greater than impacting lives and the next generation. I know first-hand what sports did for me and to me. The life lessons that come with sports are so valuable, especially in this day and age with technology and where we are as a society. Obesity rates are so high and our kids are glued to technology, so it’s so important to get our kids active, outside, having fun, playing a game and being competitive. It’s especially important for young female athletes to realize and appreciate how amazing their body is and what a gift and amazing tool it is. I’m also excited to be involved with the Breakthrough Series through Major League Baseball and USA Baseball and Softball. I couldn’t be more ecstatic to see MLB stepping up to the plate to provide young girls with more opportunities in softball and baseball. The girls are so hungry for the game and it’s great to see the impact these events have.
SA: Softball has been reinstated for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo but is questionable for the 2024 Games in Paris. How do you feel about that? Why is softball having such a hard time maintaining footing on the international stage?
JF: It’s devastating to think that our sport is where it is. Over 140 countries play softball and it’s just heartbreaking to think one of oldest sports around can’t get back into the Olympics. But I’m hoping Tokyo will help that cause. What a great place to showcase what we can do. It is going to be packed and the world will be watching, so I’m hoping it will change things. One of the hardest things about being a female athlete is seeing where our sport is internationally. How can our opportunities in our sport be lessened when the opportunities for women have grown so much? When I grew up, you didn’t hear about female athletes at all and now you can google pretty much any sport and see a female athlete that represents that sport. How are these opportunities being taken away and decreased when in reality the exposure is being increased?
SA: You played for the Chicago Bandits in the National Pro Fastpitch League, which has struggled to attract the rabid fans of the collegiate game. Why do you think this happens?
JF: I remember when I was playing in Chicago I would be recognized on the street and people would ask, “What are you doing here?” I’d tell them I was playing professionally 15 minutes away and they would know nothing about it. Marketing is everything, and unfortunately the collegiate programs have the followings in their areas while the pro league does not. The teams have been scattered around and about and haven’t been able to establish a consistent fan base and following or even an awareness of their existence. It’s heartbreaking, really. We are thankful that NPF is where it is, and that it is still growing, for sure, but you wish it would be more popular and more successful, so it could provide more opportunity for the stars of the collegiate game to be recognized at that next level. There is so much talent across the globe, and to think there has not been much opportunity and space for them is sad.
SA: You just participated in an event with the Southern Illinois Miners, who have recently partnered with the Canadian Wild of Southern Illinois of the National Pro Fastpitch League. What will be the benefits of that partnership?
JF: The Miners are an independent baseball team in the Frontier League and they are expanding and taking on the Canadian Wild as part of the National Pro Fastpitch League. I have always said that is ideally where the NPF teams should be. The minor league baseball teams already have the facilities, the staff, the infrastructure, the community and the fan base established, so why can’t we piggy back that? A diehard softball fan may not make the best professional owner, but if we go into these already established scenarios, we could have success. The Wild will play 25 home games this summer at Rent One Park in Marion, Illinois, the home of the Miners, and I’m really hoping this situation could be a breakthrough for us. Every city has youth softball leagues and the participation numbers are right up there with youth baseball. With where we are as a society, trying to lift up women, I can’t think of a better way to do that for the younger generations than to make professional softball visible and accessible to them.
SA: Oklahoma State’s Samantha Show recently flipped her bat after a home run and the video went viral. Bat flips are controversial in both baseball and softball; you either love them or you hate them. How do you feel about bat flips?
JF: I would never be a bat flipper. During my sophomore year at Arizona, our coach (Mike Candrea) gave us a talk about celebrations. He said, “Don’t you guys expect to hit home runs?” He wanted us to act like it was our job and it was the norm and we did it every day, not like it was anything special to celebrate. But in that moment, you never know what you’re going to do and how you’re going to react. I do think it’s fun to see different personalities come out, and I think there’s room for everything in the game. But if I were pitching and a batter flipped her bat after a home run? Well, it wouldn’t happen again, that’s for sure.