Batting practice at White Sox Park last Saturday took place under a high, bleached sky–until black clouds suddenly blew in on a wind that howled through the fencing at the back of the upper deck. As the rain came down in sheets–and Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle did belly slides on the tarp like an otter–I went through my notebook, hoping to fix the images there in my head before they washed away.

Jennie Finch threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the opener of last month’s Cubs-Sox series at Wrigley Field. Finch is the cover-girl ace of the new Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch women’s softball league. Her jersey tucked into a sleek pair of jeans, the willowy blond took the mound, toed the rubber, and effortlessly hurled the baseball underhand across the plate. This was impressive. A baseball is not a softball, and differences in weight and size can throw off the best athlete. (My father tells the story of how at Vanderbilt he bet future Bears quarterback Billy Wade he couldn’t throw a golf ball 100 yards. He won–the golf ball was too small and slippery for Wade to gain a purchase on it.) Finch, however, seemed entirely comfortable with the ball–and with the setting, looking down from a mound at a home plate about 17 feet further from her than she’s used to.

The Bandits began play last Thursday with a game against the Australian national team at Lisle’s Benedictine University. The Sun-Times treated it as little more than a girl-power curiosity, while the Tribune buried it in a notes column. (DePaul’s softball team, by contrast, got full coverage in the Women’s College World Series.) On TV, however, Comcast SportsNet Chicago gave the game the full treatment, and I paid rapt attention. There are plenty of other fine players on the Bandits, but Finch dominated, taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning and pitching a complete-game victory, plus batting cleanup. Glaring fiercely from behind the eyeliner and mascara, she seemed transformed from Wrigley.

The Australian pitcher had a simple motion, bobbing her hands up and down in front of her body, then swinging her right arm overhead to deliver the underhand pitch. Finch cocked her right arm back a quarter turn, as if it were spring-loaded, then swung it all the way around as she strode down the mound, delivering the ball just off her right thigh. Her repertoire included a lively tailing fastball, a curve moving away from a right-handed batter, a sinker or “drop” ball, and a rising fastball clocked at 70 miles an hour. Watching her pitch was like watching Buehrle or Mark Prior on a good day, except that these hitters seemed so overmatched it almost wasn’t fair. I decided to add Lisle to my summer baseball itinerary along with Kane County for the Cougars and Schaumburg for the Flyers.

When Derrek Lee first arrived at Wrigley with the Florida Marlins, he was a gangly first baseman with prodigious power. Over the last two years with the Cubs he’s acquired a fluid grace. I was studying his swing one day at batting practice, and in his long, level follow-through, punctuated by a slight tilt of the head, I saw a mirror image of old photos of Ted Williams, a similarly tall, thin player whose elegant left-handed swing helped make him one of baseball’s greatest hitters. As Lee went on to take the National League lead in each of the Triple Crown categories–batting average, homers, and runs batted in–Jimmy Piersall was asked last week on WSCR if he’d ever seen a batter as hot for such an extended period.

His answer: Ted Williams.

My friend and colleague Kate is a Sox fan who loves Orlando Hernandez for his artistic flourishes, such as the swanlike way he cranes his neck on the mound. Me, I look at photos of him in midmotion–hands held low at his right hip, left leg flexed high, his chin tucked birdlike into his chest behind the left knee, all balanced on a right foot on tiptoe against the rubber–and see a Brancusi sculpture. Sox aesthetes as well as more pragmatic fans cheered his recovery from a tender arm as he won a 6-4 decision over the Cleveland Indians at Sox Park last Friday. The following day I asked pitching coach Don Cooper if Hernandez had been brought in as a bell cow, to lead Jose Contreras, his fellow Cuban emigre, along the way to maturity. “No, I don’t think that. He was brought here to win games,” Cooper said, then added, “It’s a perk.”

The rain cleared off as quickly as it came last Saturday, and I put my notebook away to meet Kate outside as the grounds crew readied the field and organist Nancy Faust played “You Are My Sunshine” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” We bought cheap tickets in the upper deck, then chose a couple of prime third-row seats to wipe dry with concession-stand napkins. With the weather holding attendance to 26,365, we settled in and were left undisturbed by the ushers.

In the bottom of the first, Aaron Rowand came up with two on and two out, and I commented on his erect, formal batting stance, elbows wide. Kate said it gave him a classic look and called for a handlebar mustache. Rowand socked a two-run double that right fielder Jody Gerut got his glove on but couldn’t catch, and from there the Sox kept tacking on runs. Pitcher Jon Garland, challenging the Cleveland hitters, gave a few of them back but didn’t surrender the lead.

Two entertaining groups sat just behind us. To the right, a couple of guys with a dynamic somewhere between Jay and Silent Bob in Clerks and George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men kept a running commentary going, one of them insisting on calling Tadahito Iguchi “Iggy.” To our left, a jolly, knowledgeable group ragged good-naturedly on the Sox, promoting Paul Konerko from “Pop-up Paulie” to “Solo-homer Paulie” after he hit one out.

Dustin Hermanson, coming on in the ninth, survived a ball that left fielder Scott Podsednik lost in the sun slanting through the grandstand to nail down a 6-5 victory.

We stayed for manager Ozzie Guillen’s postgame interview on the scoreboard TV. He came in, carelessly cleared his throat, sat down, mopped his chin with the neck of his T-shirt, and laughed off the late dramatics, saying, “We find a way to win by one run all the time.” On the way out, we paused on the promontory atop the ramps to admire the view. The trees were lush and green, veiling the neighborhood baseball diamond beyond the parking lot, and in the distance the skyline looked crisp and freshly scrubbed after the rain. Unless security chased us along, we intended to preserve one last image from the day.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Foster.