Jennie Finch, the face of women’s softball, retires at 29

As recently as 10 years ago, the retirement of a woman softball player wouldn’t have earned even a few lines of type in the back of a sports section.

But when Jennie Finch, one of the most recognized athletes to come out of the University of Arizona, announced yesterday that she’s hanging up her cleats, it was covered by newspapers, websites, and sports blogs across the country.

It wasn’t Jordan-esque, or anything like Tiger packing in his clubs.  But it was big news because Finch had become the face fans have put on women’s softball.

The softball news even overshadowed major league baseball.

Chicago Cubs manager, Lou Piniella, had the unfortunate timing to announce his retirement on the same day as Finch announced hers.  The retirement of ‘Sweet Lou’, who spent 18 years in the majors as a player and 22 as a manager and has three world championship rings, often didn’t get the kind of ink given to the 29-year-old Finch.

Both said they’re retiring for the same reason, to be able to spend more time with their families.  Piniella ha’s been on the road since he broke into the game in 1962, so he’s ready.  It just didn’t take Finch that long to realize family was more important than extending a career.

Finch, who is married to Houston Astros pitcher Casey Daigle, wants their son, Ace (wouldn’t you think it would be a tennis player who names her son Ace?), to grow up with a mother who’s around to share his earliest life adventures.

In an interview for the Associated Press, she said, “I just feel like it gets harder and harder every year, with Ace getting older and time away from my husband, and even family events such as birthdays and friends’ weddings and things that I’ve always just missed out on because of baseball.”

Since she’s still so young, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Finch return to the game, maybe as a player-coach.  She’ll still be in her 30s when four-year-old Ace turns a teenager.

The right-handed hurler arrived in Tucson from her native California and immediately staked a claim to her college destiny, winning 24 games her freshman year.  She won 29 the next year, then went 32-0 in 2001 to earn the Honda Award, given to the best college softball player in the country, and carried the Cats to a College World Series title.

The 6’2″ flame-thrower closed out her Wildcat career in 2002 when she won the Honda again and posted a 34-6 record.  And along the way, she made her contribution at the plate with 50 career home runs and set an NCAA record by winning 60 consecutive games.

She went on to help the USA to a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics and a silver in 2008.  A three-time World Cup champion, she was honored as the 2009 USA Softball Player of the Year.

This week, she will also close out her career with Team USA as she pitches her last games in the World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City, which begins tomorrow and runs through Monday.

But let’s be honest.  While she was generally regarded as the face of softball, her face got lots of additional exposure on magazine covers, publicity promotions, and television appearances.  She had the allure of a fashion model and warmth of the girl-next-door.

And a body that was good enough to earn her inclusion in a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

Finch was featured on Sports Illustrated covers, was named one of People Magazine’s Most Beautiful People in 2004, and made an appearance in 2008 on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice television program.

She will probably continue to operate her softball camps and it’s likely she will continue to represent the sport in some way, perhaps as an ambassador for USA Softball.  Since leaving college, she has been at the forefront of the effort to get softball and baseball restored as Olympic events, and that crusade will continue.

She was always available to fans, the first one to be on the field signing autographs, leaving only when everyone got their chance at a piece of her legacy.  There was nothing she wouldn’t do to promote the game.

It’s not likely that she would separate herself completely from the sport that has meant so much to her.

Even at the ripe old age of 29.