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Olympian Jennie Finch joins MLB as youth softball ambassador

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NEW YORK (AP) Olympic pitcher Jennie Finch is aiming for the next generation of softball players.

She'll travel to five cities this spring and summer as the youth softball ambassador for Major League Baseball. The commissioner's office announced Wednesday that she'll join Cal Ripken Jr. and Ken Griffey Jr. as youth ambassadors for softball and baseball.

Finch says she's excited to work on the grass-roots level to let ''girls know that MLB is passionate and truly cares about the sport of softball.''

The 36-year-old Finch pitched for U.S. teams that won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 and silver in 2008. She said some of her Olympic teammates played Little League baseball before switching to softball.

Finch will take part in a girls' baseball tournament April 14-16 in Compton, California, the Softball Breakthrough Series June 11-15 in Oklahoma City and the Play Ball events July 6-10 during All-Star week in Miami.

At the Breakthrough Series in Houston last year, girls in underserved communities had the opportunity to showcase their skills in front of college coaches and some received letters of interest, Finch said.

''It's 100 degrees in Houston in middle of the day, it was hotter than all get out,'' she said. ''The girls on their water break were asking us for extra groundballs, for more work.

''I know they fired me up. That's what it's all about, helping keep our kids interested and on the playing field. I know the benefits that sport gave me and those life lessons have transcended beyond any playing field.''

Finch also will participate in the Softball Elite Development Invitational July 27-Aug. 2 in Vero Beach, Florida. The softball portion of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) World Series runs Aug. 6-11 in Cincinnati.

''Jennie's passion, insight and talent will be invaluable to our efforts,'' said Tony Reagins, senior vice president of youth programs for MLB.

Since 2006, the RBI program has offered free year-round baseball and softball instruction in six cities, along with educational and baseball vocational services, through the MLB Youth Academy. More facilities are under development in New York, Kansas City and San Francisco.

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''The next biggest hurdle besides getting them hooked is keeping them in the sport, creating a positive atmosphere and environment,'' Finch said.

She started pitching at age 8 in California and joined a 10-and-under traveling team. Her two brothers - 10 and 5 years older - played Little League and her dad coached.

''My mom was kind of a sports nut, we shared season tickets with the Dodgers,'' Finch said. ''Having older brothers ... they built my competitive fire within me because I lost a lot at home.''

Finch, who led Arizona to the 2001 NCAA softball title, later pitched for the Chicago Bandits in the National Pro Fastpitch League from 2005-10.

She's married to former major league pitcher Casey Daigle, and they have three children. Finch runs camps and clinics, has a Mizuno softball equipment and clothing sponsorship and served as manager for a day for the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League in Connecticut last year.

''I look forward to it officially happening one day, where a woman does manage and keeps breaking glass to the next stage,'' she said. ''It was a good step in the right direction and a great opportunity.''

Finch says she's proud of her former Stanford rival and current ESPN baseball announcer Jessica Mendoza, who wrapped up her historic first full season in the booth.

''She's nailed it,'' said Finch of her Olympic teammate. ''Her star continues to rise and shine and I love that she's breaking through, truly bringing her `A' game.''

Finch expects softball will be ''one of the hottest tickets'' as an exhibition sport at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Baseball and softball were last played in the 2008 Olympics.

''My hope is in Los Angeles 2024,'' said Finch of the return to full-time Olympic status. ''It's been bittersweet watching the Olympics and not seeing your sport there.''

Meanwhile, she'll try to motivate the next generation of Olympians.