READERS' PICK: When our voters tabbed Jennie Finch as best local athlete, we heaved a sigh of relief. Perhaps her NCAA Softball World Series heroics were still fresh in their minds. We prefer to think that our readers are just smart enough to realize that Finch is an overwhelmingly better athlete than our runner-up in that category, UA basketballer Eugene Edgerson.
Whichever the case, Finch had a season for the ages, pitching and hitting the University of Arizona Wildcats to a national championship and setting a wheelbarrow of school and national records along the way, including the one for most victories in a season for a pitcher.
The numbers for last season are nothing short of staggering. The Wildcats went 65-4 on their way to their sixth Pac-10 crown and sixth national championship in the last 10 years. They started the season with a 31-game winning streak, finished it with a 26-game win streak and won all 37 home games. And, as a team, they hit 126 home runs, shattering the national record of 100 set by the 1995 Wildcat squad. This is truly the stuff of a legend.
For her part, all Finch did was go 32-0 as a pitcher, breaking the school and national records for wins in a season, and won all three games she pitched in the College World Series. Along the way, she also threw her 19th career shutout and fifth career no-hitter, and was named Most Outstanding Player in the College World Series and Honda Softball National Player of the Year.
When she steps to the mound, she is a striking study in contrasts. As she mows down the competition with frightening efficiency, it's impossible to ignore the fact that this kid's got the face of an angel and the heart of serial killer.
But pitching was only part of the story. When not pitching, she played first base and hammered the ball as a batter. She batted .313, hit 11 homers and knocked in 57 runs. Amazingly, three of her 11 home runs were grand slams. She also had nine RBIs in one game, which, incredibly, isn't a national record.
While she's tearing up the record book and heading into territory that's uncharted even for a UA softball player, she's also riding the crest of a somewhat disturbing wave in women's athletics, one that saw her attract a veritable army of male groupies, some of whom were old enough to feel really creepy about the way they were acting.
She's looking to cap her collegiate career with another national championship and then look forward to the 2004 Olympics (tryouts for the national team will be held in San Diego later this month). She should have a great shot at making the team, not because UA coach Mike Candrea is the heavy favorite to be the Olympic coach, but because she's the greatest amateur softball player in the world and has accomplished things that have never been done before.
You may have heard some or all of this before. What you probably don't know is that we hear from members of the UA club volleyball team that Finch is an absolute stud volleyball player. When we mention it to her, she smiles somewhat sheepishly, as though her playing volleyball in an open gym might not be high on Coach Candrea's list of off-season conditioning drills.
No matter. If (God forbid) she never pitches another game in her life, she will have touched thousands of lives in a positive and lasting way. Mothers come up to her and thank her for carrying 6-foot-1-inch athletic frame with such poise and casual confidence. Many say that their daughters not only want to be softball players, but they also say they want to grow up to be tall like Jennie Finch. In the ever-tricky area of self-esteem and body image, this is a truly profound shift in attitude.
She just turned 21 a few weeks ago, yet her handling of the media scrutiny and fan adulation is nothing short of incredible. She is amazingly composed, friendly and polite. Jennie Finch is not only the best local athlete in Tucson; she's one of the best people in Tucson.
(In keeping with our theme of myths and legends, the blonde, statuesque Finch is Hela, the Norse Goddess who ruled over the kingdom of the dead. That may be a bit much, but we can't imagine opposing batters feeling all that alive after hearing Finch's fastball scream by them. In fact, Hela may be perfect. Hela...va ballplayer, Hela...va rolemodel, Hela...va young lady.)
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Eugene Edgerson. No, really.