Stepping up to the (softball) plate
So what's it like to face The Blonde Unit?
Ask Richie Sexson; he whiffed. So did Mike Piazza. So did Paul Lo Duca, who strikes out about once every snowfall in Miami.
A giggling Dmitri Young -- he knew he was wheat toast -- was gone in three pitches. Mike Cameron did the K Walk of Shame. And so scarred was Albert Pujols after his Good Morning-Good Afternoon-Good Night-strikeout that he told the "This Week in Baseball" camera crew, "I don't want to experience that again."
In all, about 30 big-leaguers have stepped into the batter's box against three-time All-American/gold medal-winning Olympian/National Pro Fastpitch star Jennie Finch, and only two players -- Sean Casey and Scott Spiezio -- even made contact.
So, what's it like to stand exactly 43 feet away from someone who can create enough arm torque to throw a softball underhand the baseball equivalent of 90-plus mph and be named to "People" magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People?
Put it this way: I've had my YMCA-quality baseline up-and-under shot blocked so hard by Michael Jordan that I needed corrective surgery to remove the Spalding imprint. I've stood over a tee shot on No. 17 at Pebble, a triple-press Nassau at stake, and heard Charles Barkley whispering behind me, "Tight sphincter muscle."
But nothing, absolutely nothing, can prepare you for the horrifying realization that 24-year-old Jennie Finch, the leading cause of strikeouts this side of Johan Santana, is standing in the middle of the pitching circle, game-scowl on and, ohmigod, she's beginning her celebrated windmill windup. Meanwhile, you're in the batter's box wondering whether the Depends are properly secured.
That was my predicament, courtesy of Finch's Chicago Bandits, who approved an exhibition at-bat against The Blonde Unit just before the second game of a recent doubleheader at the Field-of-Dreams-gorgeous Sports Complex at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill. First me, then the Australian National Team for Finch.
Of course, you don't face the great Finch without doing some panic preparation. Yeah, I know -- what's the point? Finch won 60 consecutive games, two player-of-the-year awards, and one NCAA championship during her 1,028-strikeout stay at Arizona. She finished 15-0 with Team USA, striking out more than two suckers for every inning pitched. And now she's 2-0 as a Bandit.
I begin working the phones, first reaching Finch's husband, Casey Daigle, who's making the transition from starter to closer at the Arizona Diamondbacks' Double-A team in Sevierville, Tenn. Daigle and Finch celebrate their five-month marriage anniversary next week, so ol' Casey isn't exactly in a hurry to divulge any tips.
"As far as trying to hit her, well, I've got a couple of things up my sleeve I might try, but I don't think I can tell you," he says.
"Fair enough. Any tips about the stuff she throws?"
"Yeah," says Daigle, who won't hit against her, "if you can find a batting machine that can move the ball in and out, or high and low, and then, without you knowing it, can change speeds by 25, 30 mph, you're all set. She tops off around 70, but her changeup is about 45-48. You'll see, it's scary. All I can say is best of luck to you."
I call Chicago Cubs second baseman Todd Walker, a career .288 hitter who saw Finch and the Bandits when they made an appearance at Wrigley Field earlier this season.
"I would imagine if I was facing Jennie, I'd sit on a first-pitch fastball," Walker says. "How fast she throw?"
"High 60s, low 70s," I say.
"How close is their mound?"
"So that's about "
"In baseball numbers, about high 90s, maybe low 100s from there."
An awkward silence, then Walker says quietly, "It's probably not going to be easy."
A few hours later, after lightning forces Bandits officials to call that evening's game, I introduce myself to Finch near the home dugout. She's tall, about 6-1, and if her handshake were any stronger, I'd have to call Medic Alert.
She says playing professional softball is "like a dream come true." Pitching against me -- not so much.
Finch throws five pitches: a riseball, a dropball, a screwball, a curveball and that killer changeup. Spiezio hit the changeup, but Finch doesn't count that as an official base hit, what with him resorting to a scouting report beforehand. As for Casey, he likes to tell people he hit "a gapper a rip to right."
"A dinker to right," says Finch, slightly annoyed. "Or to second base."
"Can you give me one piece of mercy advice for tomorrow?" I plead.
She thinks about it for a moment. "Try to shorten up."
I need professional hands-on help, so I contact Kathy Young, a fastpitch instructor at the Bulls/White Sox Training Academy. She laughs when I tell her about the at-bat against Finch.
"Meet me before the game," she says. "We have a swing-speed booth behind the right-center fence."
Young breaks into laughter when I arrive the next day.
"I'm not laughing at you," she says, before laughing at me again.
Between guffaws, she says Finch likely will start me off with a low fastball. "She'll give you one pitch for your shot. I would say on the second pitch she'll come in with a changeup and then a riser. If you get a foul tip, that will be astounding."
Young takes me through a 12-point lesson that makes my head hurt.
"How am I going to remember all of this?" I say.
"You're not," she says. "We've got kids who sign up for 16 weeks of lessons to learn this. No, you just hit the way you're comfortable." Then more laughing.
I sneak over to watch Finch as she warms up along the left-field foul line. Her screwball and dropball (essentially, her fastballs) are green blurs. Her curveball is slider-ish. Her riseball is unhittable. And her changeup nearly makes me weep.
A Bandits official calls me over to the dugouts. It's almost time.
"Wish me luck," I say.
"You're going spinning," she says. "I can guarantee it."
"Spinning" is softball-speak for swinging -- and missing -- so hard that you spin in the box. I stare at my sneakers.
A Bandits assistant coach hands me a helmet. "You'll need this," he says. Then he calls for Bandits catcher Selena Collins to take her place behind the plate. "You'll definitely need a catcher," the coach says.
I hear my name on the loudspeaker. The P.A. announcer explains the at-bat to the crowd of about 750. I shake Finch's hand and mention pathetically, "You're my favorite player." She smirks.
I paw at the dirt in the batter's box and ask Collins, "Can you tell me the first pitch?"
She laughs. So does the umpire.
Finch is so close that I can almost reach out and tug at her ponytail. I start channeling Crash Davis ("Quick bat quick bat"). I stare at Finch's right hip; Young said that's her release point. I remember the words of Walker: Look for a first-pitch fastball.
Finch begins her violent windup and, wait, there it is -- I catch a glimpse of the ball as it leaves her hand. If it's a changeup, I'm going to tear both my ACLs because I've already committed to the pitch. I swing my dinky Lisa Fernandez number at the meteor and then, the sweetest sound I've ever heard.
The ball hits high on the handle and squirts between first and second. Gil Hodges could have fielded it -- and he's been dead for 33 years.
I don't know who's more surprised: me or Finch. Finch shrugs her shoulders. I nearly hum the "1812 Overture."
An umpire later hands me the ball. A Bandits official offers to get it autographed.
I float home. The ball and chain asks how I did. Are you kidding?
"A gapper," I say. "A rip to right."
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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