Welcome to the semi-perfect world of Jennie Finch, reigning national collegiate softball Player of the Year, future Olympian and holder of more records than Dick Clark.
Here's how good Finch is: She won an NCAA-record 60 consecutive games as a pitcher in a span stretching over three seasons. That mark isn't completely shocking when one realizes that over that span her earned-run average was around 0.45. Even Arthur Andersen could figure out that it's hard to win when you're getting less than a half a run per game.
These are busy days for the senior. Preside over the Tucson Rodeo Parade one week, fly to D.C. to hang with President Bush the next. Try out for the Olympics here, get your picture taken with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling for the cover of Arizona Diamondbacks magazine there. And, in between, take the mound every other game and humiliate all comers. Fire sub-atomic particles over the plate at near-light speed and send the batters back to the dugout, muttering thanks to God that you have pinpoint control.
When Jennie Finch walks across the UA campus, it sparks a mass stare-a-thon. Some stare because of her height, a statuesque 73 inches borne with casual confidence and without the slightest hint of a slouch that often shows up in tall women. Others stare because of her looks: Southern California Sun Princess stuff, with the dark skin, bright blue eyes and long blonde hair. And more than a few stare simply because, when all is said and done, she is the stud athlete on campus.
Indeed, if Sean Elliott, generally considered to be the greatest athlete in UA history, had dominated his sport the way Finch does hers, kids would have spent the early '90s knocking people in the head and stealing their Sean Shoes. (Or Shoez, depending on how badly Nike had wanted to pander to the hip-hop crowd.)
Elliott led his team to unprecedented heights when they reached the Final Four; Finch pitched her team to the national championship. Elliott got jobbed out of a spot on the U.S. Olympic team by a knuckleheaded coach, John Thompson; Finch, riding a well-earned reputation as a monster talent, pretty much got her spot on the U.S. National team in a walkover. Elliott had to split various Player of the Year honors with Duke's Danny Ferry; Finch was a near-unanimous pick in every category last year. After getting off to another blazing start, the only way she could lose the awards this year would be if the votes were counted in Florida.
We meet at McKale Center, in front of the ticket office. She drives up in her new white SUV and parks in a space that's reserved for a TV truck that'll be arriving later that day. She munches on a Met-RX bar, which generally taste like chocolate-covered feet. No wait, make that artificially-flavored chocolate-covered feet. Not 10 minutes into the interview, one of the omnipresent meter cops pulls up and eases into ticket-writing mode. Finch jumps up and runs across the street. When the guy sees who it is, he not only puts the pen away, he tells her she can keep the space. She moves her car anyway.
While she's gone, a fortysomething guy who had been hanging around at the ticket office walks over to me and says, "Wow, where was Jennie Finch when we were in college?"
To which I replied, "Still in one of her mother's ovaries, you perv."
FINCH'S WORLD might be completely perfect were it not for this one little problem. An inordinate number of her fans are either 15-year-old girls or 42-year-old men. It's a situation she does her best to just shrug off, but it's there and can't be blocked out completely. She deftly explains that her Wildcat team draws a wide cross-section of fans--snowbird retirees, young softballers, families and, yes, guys who look like Drew Carey.
Noting her discomfort with the subject matter, we shift gears. I had promised that I would ask her questions that no other interviewer ever had. None of that "role model" stuff. True to my word, I kicked things off with, "So, Jennie ... how much do you weigh?"
She races through the bio stuff. Born and raised in Southern California. Self-employed dad and hospital-administrator mom somehow manage to see almost all of her games. Loves ice cream. Favorite movie is (STEREOTYPE ALERT! STEREOTYPE ALERT!) A League of Their Own. Attends church on a regular basis. Doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, has never cussed. Likes the beach.
Wait a minute! Has never cussed?
"Never. Not even once," she professes. "That's one of those things that once you start, it would be very hard to stop, so I just never started."
Continuing, she explains that she works hard at her studies, but admits that she isn't the most enthusiastic student of all time. Majoring in Communications. Extremely proud of the fact that she got straight A's last semester, a first for her at the UA. Math isn't her friend ... yet. Claims not to be superstitious ("Although I do follow a specific routine on pitching days"). Has dated, off and on, but it really doesn't matter because it's none of your freakin' business! Listens to custom-burned CDs of slow jams.
You like music, Jennie? Can you dance?
She laughs, "I'm a 6'1" white girl. What do you think?"
During the interview, a parade of people pass by and pay homage. A little grandmotherly woman excuses herself and says that she just has to hug Finch. Bob, the groundskeeper, pulls up and gives her a report on the new moisture-absorbing chemical he has added to the infield in response to complaints by shortstop Lovieanne Jung. Men's basketball wunderkind assistant coach Josh Pastner pokes his head out from the basketball office and shouts a greeting. It is compelling evidence of Finch's allure, seeing as how Pastner has done so without a TV camera anywhere in sight.
HAVING GOTTEN HER SIDE of the story, it's now time to seek out others. After exhaustive research, it has been determined that if the word "nice" didn't already exist, it would be necessary to invent it for this kid. Her teammates think she's nice. Fans think she's nice. Coaches and teachers think she's nice. Tairia Mims, who plays for the (infinitely-more-vile-than-ASU) arch-rival UCLA Bruins, despises Finch as a competitor, but, as a person, thinks she's "nice." The deejays at KRQ-FM, where she interned, think she's nice. Heck, if Mother Teresa of Calcutta were alive today, she'd probably say, "That Finch girl is much nicer than I."
Nice or not, she's one of the fiercest competitors you'll ever see. When asked which is stronger for her, the love of winning or the hatred of losing, she doesn't hesitate. "I hate losing. I mean, I love winning, but losing is a much more intense feeling. When I lose, I take it very personally."
Her 60-game winning streak began after Finch lost a game in the 2000 season when she threw a screwball to a left-handed ASU batter and the Sun Devil just stuck out her bat and poked it over the opposite-field wall. "I had to ride the bus back to Tucson and think about it the whole way. I told myself I didn't ever want to feel that way again. My goal is to never lose. That may not be realistic, but I'm going to try."
Finch lost her first game of the year--her first in two years--this week. She battled the flu all last week and was unable to keep food down. She was the winning pitcher against UCLA on Saturday, then entered the game in relief on Sunday, giving up two home runs in a 6-5 loss to the Bruins. That dropped her record this season to 20 wins against one loss.
She is unyielding on the mound, battling every hitter like it's the last out of the World Series. She proudly proclaims that she has never thrown at a batter, but then again, she doesn't have to. Her fastball gets to the plate in less time than those of the aforementioned Johnson and Schilling. This is due only partly to the fact that the mound is closer to the plate in softball; the majority derives from her having an absolute cannon for a right arm.
Of course, she didn't just wake up one morning as Jennie Finch, Softball Superstar. No, she's been playing the game for nearly 80 percent of her life. She started out on a Junior Miss team at the tender age of five and was already on a travel squad when she was eight.
For those blissfully unfamiliar with the concept, a travel squad is apparently based on an old East German concept that kids need to be brutally weeded out by the time they reach puberty. Travel squads subject pre-teens to a grueling six-month schedule of air travel, motel stays, granola bars for breakfast and fast food for dinner, nightly practice during the week and anywhere from four to eight games every weekend at a new and different tournament location somewhere in North America. And any down time (such as it is) must be filled with fund-raising activities, since while you can cram six or so kids into one motel room, the airlines still charge by the head.
This system has an amazing propensity for producing burnouts. Following a Boyle's Law pattern of inverse proportionality, it also tends to puff up parents while grinding down kids. However, those kids who survive the ordeal emerge as something of an elite class. Many of these kids will enter high school already having played in hundreds, if not thousands, of pressure-packed softball games. Here, it gets even trickier as the travel team schedule overlaps with prep sports and the pressure on kids to compete for their school while at the same time giving their parents a return on a huge travel-team financial outlay is enormous.
(These days, the softball travel-team "season" begins early in the calendar year and culminates with a huge tournament Thanksgiving weekend. Yes, Thanksgiving. This means that for high schoolers, the travel squad overlaps the entire volleyball season and infringes on the start of basketball season, as well.)
"I played a lot of softball," Finch remembers. "A lot. And we (the family) decided early on that I was going to pursue softball all out, so I had to make sacrifices."
Among these sacrifices is the bizarre fact that, despite growing up in no-weather-whatsoever Southern California, she's never been on roller skates. Neither has she has ever skied, on water or snow. "My parents tried to keep me away from activities that could get me hurt and keep me out of softball. I figure I can do those things when I'm 30."
This policy was sorely tested when she got to La Mirada High School in Orange County and excelled in volleyball and basketball. While maintaining her hectic softball schedule, she found that she also enjoyed her time away from the diamond. "I really like basketball, and I love volleyball. In fact, when it came time to go to college, softball wasn't a slam-dunk guaranteed decision."
While the no-roller skate decision paid off, she did sustain a broken bone in her foot during her senior-year basketball season. This caused a few anxious moments for Team Finch, but she recovered quickly and went on that following spring to solidify her position as the best prep pitcher in the nation. She then was ready to join the top collegiate softball program in the world, one that gobbled up championships with amazing regularity. The Arizona Wildcat program had already produced a galaxy of stars--from Susie Parra to Nancy Evans to Laura Espinosa--but it was about to unleash a force the likes of which neither it nor the softball world had ever seen.
MIKE CANDREA, the most successful coach in the history of the University of Arizona, lives in Casa Grande, a town that's a good (or bad) hour's drive from the UA campus. A quiet yet fiercely competitive man, Candrea has built a dynasty in the desert. His softball teams have won six national championships (and got cheated out of another) in the past 11 years. They've also finished as NCAA runners-up three times during that same span. At the current pace, by the end of this decade, Candrea will have more national championships than all the other coaches in UA history combined.
Such sustained excellence requires dedication and focus, but Candrea takes those things to off-the-chart levels. (When the UA men's basketball team played a Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament game recently, the softball team practiced while everybody else in town was glued to the TV set.)
While it's common knowledge that the coach makes the 120-mile round trip from Casa Grande every day, Finch informs us that he does so in a silent car. "It's really amazing," she says. "No radio, no stereo, nothing. He calls it his 'thinking time.' We went up to his house once for a barbecue. If I had to make that trip once without music, I'd be talking to the cactuses. He does it every day."
Besides the sensory-deprivation commute, Candrea has other eccentricities. He openly shares training tips and techniques with other coaches and he doesn't believe in team captains. What he does best, however, is identify and recruit talented individuals whom he thinks will buy into his ultra-successful team concept. He had been keeping his eye on Jennie Finch since early in her high-school career. (She says that she always liked Arizona, and adds that, despite being a California girl, there's no way she would have ever gone to UCLA. Her second choice behind Arizona: Washington.)
Candrea might have known she was going to be good, but could he possibly know she was going to be this good?
The stats jump off the page. A perfect 32-0 mark last year as a pitcher (an NCAA single-season record). 3-0 in the College World Series, and CWS Most Outstanding Player. Struck out at least 10 batters in seven consecutive starts. Had nine RBI in a single game. Led the team in batting in Pac-10 play with a .370 average. Had a 0.54 earned-run average for the season. Twice struck out 14 batters in a game and had back-to-back 13 strikeout games against Stanford. Hit 11 home runs, including three grand slams. Was named Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year, first-team All-American and Honda national Player of the Year.
And that's just last year. In her career, she has more than 100 pitching victories against 11 defeats. Finch has a career batting average over .300 (a staggering feat in softball), a near-flawless career fielding percentage of .987, a prodigious career slugging percentage of over .600 and a career earned-run average that has been slashed by 75 percent since her freshman year.
It surprised absolutely no one, then, when she was named to the National team after tryouts in January. (The trials were originally scheduled for last fall, but got pushed back by 9/11.) She will play on the national team this summer after the UA season is over and then return to school in the fall to complete her degree and help with the Wildcat coaching staff next spring. In the summer of 2003, she and her U.S. teammates will begin a year-long process of molding a unit capable of successfully defending the Gold Medal and, one hopes, humiliating the much-hated Australians in the process.
The Olympics are scheduled to be held in Athens and the potential image of Finch pitching with the Acropolis in the backdrop is a striking one. The Greeks might take one look at the prototypical athlete of the future and feel the need to rewrite their mythology.
But, if given the opportunity to compete in the Winter Olympics, in which event would she compete? "Definitely figure skating," she blurts. "They're amazing."
Oddly enough, despite the whole roller-skating thing, she has been on ice skates. "Just once," she laughs. "And I held on to the wall the entire time. Still, that would be the event I'd like to do."
Singles or pairs? "Singles," she says, smiling. "There's no way I'm letting some guy pick me up and throw me." That obviously has nothing to do with the fact that she stands 6'1" and weighs however many pounds. It's about being in control.
There is a game late that afternoon and the early-March weather has turned cold and blustery. It's the kind of weather that year-round Tucsonans tend to appreciate, knowing that the blast furnace will be arriving in a matter of days or, if they're lucky, weeks. The softball players from the UA and the University of Hawaii seem less pleased, having to battle the weather as well as each other. It's so cold, the concessions people could probably sell a tiny cup of hot chocolate for four bucks. Oh wait, they are.
Despite the weather, Finch is cruising. She mows down the Rainbow Warrior lineup in the first two innings, but then something incredible happens. In the third inning, the Hawaii batters tee off. There's one hit, and a walk, a fielder's choice, then another hit. The next batter rips Finch's first offering down the left-field line, well foul. Finch frowns slightly, then pitches again. This time the batter shoots one down the line, just fair. When the dust has settled, a run has scored and Finch ... appears to be smiling. She gets the next batter to ground into an inning-ending double play, gives up only one more hit the rest of the way and easily wins to add to her NCAA-record streak of consecutive victories.
When asked about it later, she says flatly, "I wasn't smiling."
Well, it looked like a smile.
"I don't smile on the mound, especially after giving up a hit."
Are you sure? It really looked like a smile.
Her voice lowers and she speaks just ever-so-slightly slower than usual. "It wasn't a smile."
With that, she has achieved the perigee of her Nice Orbit, coming within a few million miles of Not Nice; it may be as close as she will get in the next 75.8 years. Duly admonished, I must now conclude that it wasn't a smile. It was probably something more along the lines of when you think a baby is smiling, but it's just gas.
In the 1967 classic Mel Brooks movie, The Producers--which tells of a get-rich scheme built around staging the worst play of all time--the title characters mount a musical production based on the Third Reich. At the start of the big opening musical number (entitled "Springtime For Hitler"), a German SS officer sings of the virtues of Nazism as scantily-clad Aryan women parade by. As the SS guy sings, "Look out, here comes the Master Race," there she is! It's the spitting image of Jennie Finch, wearing a Viking helmet and waist-length gold braids.
Of course, this was 35 years ago and the woman, who might have been tall for her day, was probably half-a-head shorter than Finch. The UA pitcher laughed when she saw the tape, but admits it's nothing new to her.
Some people actually think it's clever to half-jokingly suggest to her that she is the product of some secret government lab buried under the desert in Nevada. Well, she's not.
She's not Robo-Pitcher, she's not the Bionic Woman, and the only thing she has to do with the government is that she's registered to vote. What she is in reality is the product of good genes, a Herculean work ethic, spectacular self-discipline and a passion for winning that borders on the manic.
Besides, everybody knows that that lab is in Montana.
Life is good for Jennie Finch, but does she ever get tired of the stares and all the attention? Does she ever wish that she were 5'7" and just a pretty good athlete?
"Oh no," she snaps. "Why be normal?"