Roy Exum: Remembering Sidd Finch

Monday, March 31, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Today is “Opening Day,” that most glorious day each spring when major league baseball begins, and in my mind there will never be an equal to 1985 when Hayden Siddhartha Finch came into the Big Leagues. Called by the nickname of “Sidd” around the clubhouse, he was a one-in-a-million pitcher who was shockingly on the cover of Sports Illustrated throwing a 168 mile per hour fastball at soft-drink cans set up on a sand dune. And – trust me – this was before anyone in the sport had ever heard of him.

The headline on the magazine 29 Aprils ago revealed “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” and the smaller headline on the cover read, “He's a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd's deciding about yoga -- and his future in baseball."

George Plimpton, the Harvard-educated sports guru of the day who wrote such dazzling books as “Out of My League,” “Paper Lion,” and “The Bogey Man,” introduced Sidd to the world in an early-April issue of the magazine. Plimpton wrote that on March 14 the Mets were in spring training at Payson Field in St. Petersburg when Mel Stottlemyre, the pitching coach, called three players from exercise and told them to get their bats and battling helmets.

They went towards a large canvas-covered structure, where it was rumored irrigation machinery was being constructed, but inside, around a home plate and pitching mound, the Mets’ top brass was assembled. The hitters, according to Plimpton, “were John Christensen, a 24-year-old outfielder; Dave Cochrane, a spare but muscular switch-hitting third baseman; and Lenny Dykstra, a swift centerfielder who may be the Mets' lead-off man of the future.”

Told by the coach that they needed “to keep quiet because we got a delicate situation,” Christensen went to the plate as Finch came through a curtain on the other side. Plimpton wrote, “A tall, gawky player walked in and stepped up onto the pitcher's mound. He was wearing a small, black fielder's glove on his left hand and was holding a baseball in his right. Christensen had never seen him before.

“He had blue eyes, Christensen remembers, and a pale, youthful face, with facial muscles that were motionless, like a mask. ‘You notice it,’ Christensen explained later, ‘when a pitcher's jaw isn't working on a chaw or a piece of gum.’ Then to Christensen's astonishment he saw that the pitcher, pawing at the dirt of the mound to get it smoothed out properly and to his liking, was wearing a heavy hiking boot on his right foot.”

Oh, faith and glory! “I'm standing in there to give this guy a target, just waving the bat once or twice out over the plate. He starts his windup. He sways way back, like Juan Marichal, this hiking boot comes clomping over—I thought maybe he was wearing it for balance or something—and he suddenly rears upright like a catapult,” the magazine read.

“The ball is launched from an arm completely straight up and stiff. Before you can blink, the ball is in the catcher's mitt. You hear it crack, and then there's this little bleat from (catcher Ronn) Reynolds,” said the batter, adding, "I never dreamed a baseball could be thrown that fast."

“The wrist must have a lot to do with it, and all that leverage,” Christensen explained to the writer. “You can hardly see the blur of it as it goes by. As for hitting the thing, frankly, I just don't think it's humanly possible. You could send a blind man up there, and maybe he'd do better hitting at the sound of the thing."

More puzzling than the mythical velocity was how Finch got to the Mets. Most of his life was spent abroad except for a brief stint at Harvard. Plimpton’s research learned young Sidd “spent his early childhood in an orphanage in Leicester, England and was adopted by a foster parent, the eminent archaeologist Francis Whyte-Finch, who was killed in an airplane crash while on an expedition in the Dhaulagiri mountain area of Nepal.

“At the time of the tragedy, Finch was in his last year at the Stowe School in Buckingham, England, from which he had been accepted into Harvard. Apparently, though, the boy decided to spend a year in the general area of the plane crash in the Himalayas (the plane was never actually found) before he returned to the West and entered Harvard in 1975, dropping for unknown reasons the "Whyte" from his name. Hayden Finch's picture is not in the freshman yearbook. Nor, of course, did he play baseball at Harvard, having departed before the start of the spring season.”

When he arrived in St. Petersburg for spring training, Sidd was definitely “curious.” Rather than stay with the team at the Edgewater Beach Inn, Plimpton wrote “the Mets were surprised when he telephoned and announced that he had leased a room in a small boarding-house just off Florida Avenue near a body of water on the bay side called Big Bayou.

“Because his private pitching compound had been constructed across the city and Finch does not drive, the Mets assigned him a driver, a young Tampa Bay resident, Eliot Posner, who picks him up in the morning and returns him to Florida Avenue or, more often, to a beach on the Gulf where, Posner reports, Finch, still in his baseball outfit and carrying his decrepit glove, walks down to the water's edge and, motionless, stares out at the windsurfers. Inevitably, he dismisses Posner and gets back to his boardinghouse on his own.

“The Met management has found out very little about his life in St. Petersburg. Mrs. Roy Butterfield, his landlady, reports (as one might expect) that "he lives very simply,” she told Plimpton.

“Sometimes he comes in the front door, sometimes the back. Sometimes I'm not even sure he spends the night,” said Mrs. Butterfield. “I think he sleeps on the floor—his bed is always neat as a pin. He has his own rug, a small little thing. I never have had a boarder who brought his own rug. He has a soup bowl. Not much, is what I say. Of course, he plays the French horn. He plays it very beautifully and, thank goodness, softly. The notes fill the house. Sometimes I think the notes are coming out of my television set."

* * *

Sadly, there is not enough space to continue the dazzling story but Sid never got in a big-league game. No, he retired a week later, just before Sports Illustrated finally admitted that it was a carefully-orchestrated April Fool’s Day joke. But there is this: Several years after the most spectacular story ever appeared in the April 1, 1985, issue of Sports Illustrated and had the nation desperately searching for a pitcher who played the French Horn, I was sitting with Plimpton and some other writers at a bar in New York. I asked him how in the heck could any of us have “broken the code,” or could have known it was the great April Fool’s Day hoax in sports history.

George, who died in the fall of 2003, laughed heartily at the legendary caper and told me to go back and get the magazine cover. “See the sub-head, where it says, ‘He's a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd's deciding about yoga …’ well, simply take the first letter of each word and there you have it.”

Oh, and Finch’s middle name of Siddhartha, which spawned the nickname of Sidd, came after somebody told George it was Buddha’s first name. Oh, to think: I’ve laughed about Sidd Finch for 29 years but accept this as your yearly reminder -- don’t you get suckered into taking any wooden nickels tomorrow.

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