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Gold medalist Jennie Finch wants to be a role model for 'healthy, fit, athletic women,' which is one reason she posed for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.
Gold medalist Jennie Finch wants to be a role model for "healthy, fit, athletic women," which is one reason she posed for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

Prettyas apitcher Ace wants credit as an athlete first

First in a series on athletes whose commercial appeal extends beyond their accomplishments on the field. Tomorrow: Andy Roddick

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Jennie Finch dreads going to airports. It's not just the extra security or the long lines; it's her picture in this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. ''I had to sign a few in the airport," she said. ''It's just uncomfortable to sign your stomach."

 PART 2: Andy Roddick

The 2004 Olympic softball gold medalist with the blazing riseball, the blonde ponytail, and the right pitching arm longer than her left doesn't relish being a sex symbol. She'd rather be torturing a hitter, male or female. Her fastball has been clocked at 71 miles per hour, which when delivered at the regulation 43 feet is the baseball equivalent of throwing in the high 90s from 60 feet 6 inches. She has six different pitches and she throws them all for strikes.

While pitching at the University of Arizona, she reeled off an NCAA-record 60 consecutive wins. She has struck out major leaguers Mike Piazza and Mike Cameron and more than a dozen other stars on her own segment of "This Week In Baseball," where she was the first female commentator. Alex Rodriguez is afraid to hit against her. Barry Bonds has trash-talked her, but never stepped in against her. Cincinnati Reds All-Star Sean Casey says she reminds him of Randy Johnson, except she also happens to be beautiful.

In January, the three-time All-American signed with the Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch league at a league-high salary of just $10,000 -- only $16,490,000 less than Johnson earns with the Yankees. She makes $500,000 annually in endorsements.

"You just go with it, I guess," said the 24-year-old of her sex appeal. "Take advantage of the doors that are open and the opportunities that are there. It's the challenge of the Olympics. You have to keep it going. Keep riding that Olympic gold."

But players in team sports make far less than athletes in individual sports, and women earn far less than men. Even Anna Kournikova -- who has parlayed a non-title-winning tennis career into a $10 million-$12 million modeling career -- receives far less than Tiger Woods's estimated $90 million last season.

Finch's Olympic teammate, Lisa Fernandez -- who has won three Olympic gold medals and is considered by Finch the greatest softball player in the world -- receives only a fraction of the endorsements Finch gets.

''It's true," said Finch. ''It's just kind of the way society is. You know there's no money in softball, so how are you going to be a household name? But for me, softball is the most important thing. I train six hours a day to be the best softball player that I can be. Should I be turning down these interviews because it's taking away from my training? Yes, but it's about balancing and making it all fit."

But the woman voted ''hottest female athlete" in an poll in 2003 -- dethroning Kournikova -- didn't think she looked all that hot in Sports Illustrated. The shoot in the Bahamas took two days and 20 bikini changes for two pictures.

''Whatever it was, I would've been critical," she said. ''It was post-Olympics, I wasn't even looking at a gym, let alone getting on a treadmill. I was in this big feast after we won the gold medal and celebrating. I said, 'Let's eat, let's celebrate.' "

The SI decisionIt's a sunny afternoon in Arizona, and Finch is sitting in the dugout seats of Phoenix Municipal Stadium, waiting for her new husband, Casey Daigle, a pitching prospect for the Arizona Diamondbacks, to come in against the Oakland Athletics in a spring training game.

Men with programs in hand and hats pulled low pretend to keep score but can't keep their eyes off her. There doesn't appear to be an ounce of fat on her 6-foot-1-inch frame.

Reflecting on the shoot, Finch said, ''I was 10-12 pounds heavier than I am now. And I wasn't tan and I was just like ignoring this whole thing. Until my freshman year in high school, I had all my baby fat. I was ugly when I was a kid. Not that I'm saying I am beautiful now.

"I'm not comfortable, you know, being a sex symbol like I've been called. I'm just not comfortable with that. It took a few months to decide [whether to pose in SI]."

What convinced her was that the magazine was starting to feature athletes, not just models.

"I thought, 'This is awesome. Finally young girls can look up to healthy, fit, athletic women.' It was great for women's athletics to be represented in there and great to see muscles on women. I had no idea of the magnitude of it."

Not everyone was impressed. Some Baptists went ballistic. The Baptist Press said the All-American girl had caved in and lost her values. Finch answered them. "Oh, the Baptists," she sighed. "I didn't really look at it as guys are going to be lusting over these magazines, which is the way they came at it. You know, it's not the greatest thing, but what's done is done."

She has turned down men's magazines such as Playboy, FHM, and Maxim. "There's no way I want to be in something a young girl can't read," she said.

Daigle -- ''Mr. Jennie Finch" to some -- starts warming up down the left-field line, and Finch keeps an eye on him. ''I get more nervous when he pitches than when I do," she said. "I feel helpless."

Father knew bestFinch grew up in La Mirada, Calif., where her parents had season tickets to Dodger games. Her two older brothers played baseball, but neither had the rifle arm of their kid sister. She started playing softball when she was 5 and started pitching when she was 8. By the time she was 10, she was touring on weekends with a traveling all-star team.

"My dad was a cement truck driver," she said. ''He had three herniated disks and couldn't play [with me]." So he invented and trademarked the ''Finch Windmill," a tension muscle-building practice machine to strengthen her arm.

Her father became her coach and toughest critic.

"He made me practice," said Finch. ''I used to think, 'Please make me normal.' I don't want to not go to parties or hang with my friends because I'm playing five games a day starting at 5 a.m. There were times when I hated him for a while. From age 10 on, it was crazy."

But she credits her father, too, for having faith in her to be a star.

"He always knew. I'd say, 'Well, so-and-so doesn't practice this' and he'd say, 'You're different -- you're Jennie Finch.' He drilled it into my head.

"When I was growing up, my heroes were Magic Johnson and Orel Hershiser. Men. Now, there's women you can look up to. You don't have to be a Barbie doll. You don't have to be a model."

Finch led Arizona to the 2001 NCAA title and was a two-time winner of the Honda Award as the nation's best player. She also hit over .300 and had 50 career home runs. But few knew her until she started doing the ''Pitch, Hit, and Run" segment.

"To be honest, that's how the buzz started," Finch said. ''I started facing major league hitters and that's what everybody wanted to see, and that started the buzz about fast-pitch softball."

" A-Rod was the first interview, but he didn't want to swing. He just stood in. He said, 'If you win the Olympic gold, then we'll face each other.' Sure enough, we won, but I haven't heard anything from him."

Bob Melvin, a former major leaguer and then-manager of the Seattle Mariners, was the first to volunteer to hit. Finch struck him out. She hopes Melvin doesn't hold a grudge. As the current manager of the Diamondbacks, he is responsible for keeping Daigle or shipping him to the minors. (Daigle was sent to Triple A before the season and is now pitching for the Tennessee Smokies in Double A).

In another segment, Casey was the first to get a hit off her legendary riser -- a fastball that comes up on the hitter.

"It was awesome," he said. "I decided to swing at the first pitch, a fastball away. I hit a hard grounder through the right side. I think I was the first to touch the ball. She said it was a dribbler. I beg to differ. It was a rocket to right. Then she struck me out on three pitches. She's nasty, absolutely nasty. Mark Grace and I came in and celebrated, jumped up and down. She's a good-looking woman, very athletic. For someone to be that legitimate and to be as beautiful as she is, is very rare. She's the total package. She looks like she's 5 feet away. She's like Randy Johnson; he looks like he's 5 feet away from you."

The comparisons to Johnson are not just anecdotal.

"They measured my stride as an inch longer than Randy Johnson," says Finch. "They figured out that I start 43 feet out and I'm 35 feet out when I release the ball."

A taste of the prosAt a throwing session at Athletes' Performance in Tempe, the volunteer catcher couldn't hold on to the ball. For those brave enough to stand in the batter's box, you can hear Finch grunt as she delivers every pitch. She kicks up dirt like a dog at the beach with her windmill delivery and then asks for a broom to clean up the mess.

Finch became the first woman to pitch in the Pepsi All-Star Game against major leaguers last year. Her teammates had the ultimate faith in her. "It was kind of cute," she recalled. "All the infielders came in and laid down on the grass and they brought them water."

Hitters looked foolish trying to hit her legendary changeup, which turns big leaguers into Little Leaguers. She throws it with the same motion as her riser but flicks her wrist backward.

"I throw two riseballs because they're not used to seeing the ball go up," she said. ''Then I would throw them a changeup to make them look silly."

It backfired on her once. "Scott Spiezio was totally waiting on the changeup," she said. ''He told me, 'Better mix it up, there's a scouting report out on you.' So sure enough, he knew the third pitch was gonna be a changeup."

The National Pro Fastpitch League lost money in its inaugural season last year. League president and Chicago general manager Bill Conroy says the league will turn a profit this year, thanks mainly to Finch, eight other Olympians who will make their debuts, and a couple of games on national television. "She sells tickets," said Conroy. ''She's the cornerstone and centerpiece of our marketing."

Finch has high hopes for the league. Its local entry, the New England Riptide, play in a 2,000-seat ballpark in Lowell. (The Bandits do not come to Lowell this year; the teams' only meeting is in Chicago.) She thinks it's possible for softball to be as popular as women's tennis.

"Hopefully it can all catch on like that," Finch said. ''I mean, I don't know if we will ever be able to walk into a stadium and play before 30,000 fans, but you've got to have a dream."

She's interrupted by a fan asking for an autograph. She smiles, signs, and poses for photos.

"Casey, my husband, gets so aggravated," Finch said. ''I'm not good at saying no, but he doesn't understand. He just has to pitch and make millions of dollars. It's not about the money. There's the appreciation, that the fans are there filling the seats. Guys in a little way take that for granted."

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