OKLAHOMA CITY — The fans still cheer when the tall blonde with the glittery, red headband makes her way into the pitching circle. And Jennie Finch has still got game.
While many of her former Olympic teammates have put away their softball cleats, the sport's most recognizable face is still going strong and she doesn't know when she'll stop.
Finch calls softball a summer-to-summer decision these days, with the next chance at playing in the Olympics a full seven years away and still not a sure thing. The 28-year-old knows she won't be playing then, but she also isn't ready to walk away now.
Softball needs Finch, and she needs the game.
She can reel off the reasons why she's still putting on the red, white and blue at a time when the sport is at a crossroads. The International Olympic Committee controls a big chunk of softball's fate with its decision coming up this October on whether to include the sport in the 2016 Games.
Finch feels compelled to do her part to help continue a tradition built by the likes of Dot Richardson and Lisa Fernandez, and bridge the gap to the next generation of softball players.
"It's for these young girls out here. I love it. It's so special to see them, just seeing female athletes compete and play the game. I love the game. I love my teammates," Finch said.
"I feel the Lord definitely opened this opportunity. If you would have told me last year that I would have the opportunity to be playing first base, hitting No. 5, and then pitching and hitting at the same time, it's pretty special. To have the opportunity, I'm so grateful for it."
Finch made herself known as one of the sport's most dominant pitchers. She won an NCAA-record 60 straight games at Arizona, leading the Wildcats to the 2001 NCAA title and becoming a star for the Olympic team. Appearances on "This Week in Baseball" gave her the chance to show that not even major league hitters could get a piece of one of her deliveries.
"I think you have to consider her the face of the game in terms of the media attention and the spotlight, so to speak, has been on her for quite a while," said first-year coach Jay Miller. "I think she handles that very well. As great a ballplayer as she is, she's an even better person."
Finch said it gives her chills to hear fans cheering for her like they did when she moved over from first base to take over in relief during the Americans' 7-2 win against the Netherlands in their World Cup of Softball opener Thursday.
She struck out the first five batters she faced and 11 of 13 overall in four dominant innings. And beyond showing off her pitching prowess, Finch is finally getting a chance to hit, too.
After being asked to save her energy mainly for pitching the past few years, Finch impressed Miller with her hitting during training camp. She has since delivered the championship-winning hit in the bottom of the seventh in the final game of the Canada Cup earlier this month, then started the World Cup by going 3-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored.
It was the kind of performance that Finch said "makes you want to play forever."
But Finch knows that won't happen. Her son, Ace, is now 3 years old and she's the only mom on the U.S. team this summer, though outfielder Jessica Mendoza taking time off while awaiting her first child.
Longtime teammates Laura Berg, Crystl Bustos, Stacey Nuveman, Kelly Kretschman, Jenny Topping, Tairia Flowers and Lovieanne Jung all retired following the Olympics. Finch came back, unable to shake off a 3-1 loss to Japan in the gold medal game.
"Leaving that ballfield in Beijing, I definitely wanted to come back and I wanted to have the opportunity to wear this uniform again," she said. "I wanted to continue to play USA softball and rebound from that silver medal there in China.
"I felt like I had a lot more to give."
That includes some veteran savvy to a revamped U.S. squad that features 10 rookies. Miller said he counts on Finch to measure the pulse of the team and has found her helpful in smoothing the transition between coaches.
"She's just been a joy to work with. She went from one of our younger players to our oldest player this year, although we don't like to remind her of that too often," Miller said. "She's a tremendous ambassador for our sport. The patience that she shows in terms of dealing with the fans and media and things like that has been outstanding.
"You couldn't ask for a better representative for our sport in the world."