Sidd Finch hoax recalled at SABR convention
CHICAGO -- The temptation is to ask this question: Whatever happened to Sidd Finch?
Finch never had Tommy John surgery, never won a game in the Major Leagues and never threw his supposed 168-mph fastball to a single big league hitter. The reason for all this is simple. Sidd Finch didn't exist.
Finch was the figment of George Plimpton's fertile imagination.
"It was one of the greatest all-time hoaxes ever played on baseball," said Joe Berton, the tall and lanky middle school art teacher from suburban Chicago who represented Fitch in photographic images.
Thirty years ago, Plimpton penned the story for Sports Illustrated that the Mets had uncovered a pitcher who had briefly attended Harvard, had lived on a mountain in Tibet, could play the French horn better than he could throw a baseball and pitched with one foot bare and the other in a work boot.
And oh yeah, he could throw a baseball as fast as a bullet train travels down the railroad tracks in Japan.
Berton and former left-hander Steve Trout sat on a panel on Thursday morning at the annual summer SABR convention to discuss the hoax, which took the baseball world by storm the week prior to April Fool's Day of 1985.
The hook to the story was that Finch was reticent about giving up his life for a career in baseball and that he planned to make a decision about his future by that April 1.
The Thursday panel was entitled, "Curveballs: Pitching Prodigies, Real and Imagined!" Plimpton's story was called: "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch."
"I was on a plane when I read this Sports Illustrated story," recalled Trout, who was pitching at that time for the Cubs. "And I said, 'Thank God the Mets got him and the Cubs didn't sign him.' I mean, I was throwing 68."
Trout met Berton and Plimpton at a University of Chicago book signing and they all became fast friends. Plimpton died in 2003.
Plimpton was a participatory journalist, who was allowed to play positions like quarterback in the NFL, hockey goalie and then write about the experiences. His books were published by Doubleday, owned at the time by Nelson Doubleday, the former Mets owner, who died last week. That, of course, was the tie in and why the Mets were involved.
The stunt was put together by Jay Horwitz, still the vice president of media relations for the Mets. Horwitz used a fenced-in enclosure covered by canvas where Finch was supposedly throwing to catcher Ron Reynolds at spring camp, staged back then in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Mel Stottlemyre was the pitching coach secretively evaluating this phenom. Prospects Lenny Dykstra, John Christensen and Dave Cochrane were called into the enclosure supposedly to stand in at the plate. That was pretty much the extent of the Mets personnel in on the hoax.
Lane Stewart was asked to shoot photos for the piece for SI and he had this friend, Berton, who he used as an assistant to carry equipment at various shoots. Stewart asked Berton if he wanted to be involved in the Finch shoot. Berton said, yes.
"Well then, you better get down here," Berton was told. "You're Sidd Finch."
"We'd work with the young guys because they'd cooperate," Berton recalled. "Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell, even Dwight Gooden, who was only 19 at the time. Lane would try to get me into these situations. I'm at a Minor League game with my French horn. I'm sitting between those guys and Kevin Mitchell is grabbing my French horn. He takes it away and he's squealing notes out of this thing and there's a game going on. Davey Johnson looks over. 'What the devil's going on?'"
Stewart took a picture of Reynolds shaking a sore hand as if it had just been stung by a 168-mph pitch. There's another only of Finch's feet, one in a work boot, the other bare. The opening spread has him winding up on a white-sand beach, throwing right-handed and over the shoulder, three blurry red Coke cans on a dune in the distance.
All the Mets kept the secret. How long would it have lasted in this day and age of 24-hour news and social media?
"Five minutes," Berton hypothesized.
The story broke when advanced copies of SI hit the newsstand the week before April 1 as the Mets were concluding Spring Training. It had a grander impact than anyone could have imagined. The Mets beat writers were livid that Plimpton had scooped them on the Finch story. Horwitz, playing it straight until the end, told them that Plimpton was a better reporter. Peter Ueberroth, then MLB Commissioner, said he received phone calls from at least two general managers asking him about Sidd Finch.
"We thought we were going to have fun with it, but nobody would believe it," Berton said. "So the story comes out in New York on Monday and the magazine wasn't even prepared to handle it. Reporters are tracking down Mel Stottlemyre in camp. And they're going up to Mel at 8 a.m., asking, 'Where's Sidd?' He tells them, 'He was here at 5 a.m. You should have been here early. You missed him.' Mel was just keeping a perfect straight face. Stottlemyre was fantastic."
The hoax was perpetuated until April 1 when the Mets called a press conference in St. Petersburg. Plimpton wrote a press release for Berton, who dressed as Finch in a Mets uniform embossed with the No. 21, stepped to a microphone and announced his retirement from baseball.
"We've got ABC News there," Berton said. "I'm speaking into this mike and I had this vision of Lou Gehrig because it had this reverberation. People were wearing T-shirts and I'm doing this baseball Walter Mitty not believing this is going on."
It goes on still. Later this summer the Brooklyn Cyclones, Class A affiliate of the Mets who play at a picturesque ballpark just off the beach in Coney Island, are having a Sidd Finch bobblehead night. The likeness is of Berton, who said he's certainly invited. He's forever Sidd Finch, never having thrown a big league pitch or having Tommy John surgery.
And Sidd Finch he will so remain.