April 1, 2020

Hayden Siddhartha Finch Celebrates An Anniversary

Thirty-five years ago, something strange was going on at the New York Mets' spring training camp.

The team had signed a fantastic, but unknown, pitcher. They had erected a big tent and he would throw inside, out of sight. Naturally, rumours circulated. The guy was a Buddhist monk, he wore only one hiking boot, and his fastball was clocked at over 150 miles an hour.

The Mets gave Sports Illustrated an exclusive and photographer Lane Stewart headed down to Florida. When he got there, Lenny Dykstra was raving about this guy's fastball and Stewart saw captivated by what looked like a hole burned into catcher Ronn Reynolds's glove.

George Plimpton's 14-page article on Hayden Siddhartha Finch was, of course, one of the greatest April Fool's gags of all time.

Tim Britton of The Athletic has published an oral history of the entire stunt. Plimpton passed away in 2003, but Jonathan Dee, his assistant at The Paris Review, explained the joke's genesis:
George actually got the idea because a paper in England had run an April Fools' story a year or a couple years before connected to the London Marathon. It said that there was a Japanese entrant in the London Marathon who was under the mistaken impression that the marathon lasted not 26 miles, but 26 days. And so there were people out there looking for him; he had just sort of run into the countryside. So George was totally fooled by this. The good thing about him is for somebody who lived the kind of life he did, he was very egoless, and the idea that he'd been taken in by this initially just delighted him. He wanted to do something similar himself.
Plimpton was no stranger to false backstories. In the mid-1960s, when he attended training camp as a member of the Detroit Lions, for what became Paper Lion, he told everyone he had been the quarterback of a semi-pro team called the Newfoundland Newfs. ... A few years earlier, Plimpton had pitched a few innings to AL and NL All-Stars, a stunt recounted in the brilliant Out Of My League (1961).

Plimpton's well-detailed and (seemingly) fact-filled article included quotes from Mets' players and coaches, and there were many photographs from camp, including the Mets' initial report on the pitcher, so the story seemed legit, sort of, at first.

 Here's Plimpton, on when the Mets first turned a radar gun on him and Finch's background:
[John Christensen, a 24-year-old outfielder] bats righthanded. As he stepped around the plate he nodded to Ronn Reynolds, the stocky reserve catcher who has been with the Met organization since 1980. Reynolds whispered up to him from his crouch, "Kid, you won't believe what you're about to see."

A second flap down by the pitcher's end was drawn open, and 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. ...

"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 ... and he suddenly rears upright like a catapult. 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 Reynolds."

Christensen said the motion reminded him of the extraordinary contortions that he remembered of Goofy's pitching in one of Walt Disney's cartoon classics.

"I never dreamed a baseball could be thrown that fast. The wrist must have a lot to do with it, and all that leverage. 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." ...

The phenomenon the three young batters faced, and about whom only Reynolds, [pitching coach Mel] Stottlemyre and a few members of the Mets' front office know, is a 28-year-old, somewhat eccentric mystic named Hayden (Sidd) Finch. He may well change the course of baseball history. On St. Patrick's Day, to make sure they were not all victims of a crazy hallucination, the Mets brought in a radar gun to measure the speed of Finch's fastball. The model used was a JUGS Supergun II. It looks like a black space gun with a big snout, weighs about five pounds and is usually pointed at the pitcher from behind the catcher. A glass plate in the back of the gun shows the pitch's velocity—accurate, so the manufacturer claims, to within plus or minus 1 mph. The figure at the top of the gauge is 200 mph. The fastest projectile ever measured by the JUGS (which is named after the oldtimer's descriptive—the "jug-handled" curveball) was a Roscoe Tanner serve that registered 153 mph. The highest number that the JUGS had ever turned for a baseball was 103 mph, which it did, curiously, twice on one day, July 11, at the 1978 All-Star game when both Goose Gossage and Nolan Ryan threw the ball at that speed. On March 17, the gun was handled by Stottlemyre. He heard the pop of the ball in Reynolds's mitt and the little squeak of pain from the catcher. Then the astonishing figure 168 appeared on the glass plate. Stottlemyre remembers whistling in amazement, and then he heard Reynolds say, "Don't tell me, Mel, I don't want to know...."

The Met front office is reluctant to talk about Finch. The fact is, they know very little about him. He has had no baseball career. Most of his life has been spent abroad, except for a short period at Harvard University.

The registrar's office at Harvard will release no information about Finch except that in the spring of 1976 he withdrew from the college in midterm. The alumni records in Harvard's Holyoke Center indicate slightly more. Finch 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. ...

Finch's entry into the world of baseball occurred last July in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, where the Mets' AAA farm club, the Tidewater Tides, was in town playing the Guides. After the first game of the series, Bob Schaefer, the Tides' manager, was strolling back to the hotel. He has very distinct memories of his first meeting with Finch: "I was walking by a park when suddenly this guy—nice-looking kid, clean-shaven, blue jeans, big boots—appears alongside. At first, I think maybe he wants an autograph or to chat about the game, but no, he scrabbles around in a kind of knapsack, gets out a scuffed-up baseball and a small, black leather fielder's mitt that looks like it came out of the back of some Little League kid's closet. This guy says to me, 'I have learned the art of the pitch....' Some odd phrase like that, delivered in a singsong voice, like a chant, kind of what you hear in a Chinese restaurant if there are some Chinese in there.
I can't explain why that closing phrase - "if there are some Chinese in there" - makes me laugh. The humour is so subtle, it's almost invisible.

Between the time [Plimpton] submitted the story and the time it came out, he was in agony over the thought he'd gone too far. ... "'No one's going to believe it. I took it way too far. I'm going to be a laughingstock." It hadn't occurred to me that even a really experienced, well-known writer might not be working in a state of total self-confidence all the time. ... [H]e felt like if he didn't fool people he himself would look stupid. ...

[Plimpton was out of town on the day the story came out and he told me] I was going to be in charge. When people called up — if anybody called up — he just begged me to try to string the joke out as long as I could. ... The New York Times ... said they'd sent somebody down there to look around and couldn't find the guy. And I said, "Well, he's notoriously press shy. It wouldn't surprise me if he's out of town because of all the attention."
The feature's tagline included an admission of the hoax. It 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." The first letters from those words spell out (after deleting two extraneous letters): Happy April Fools Day - A Fib.

Lane Stewart:
My wife worked for Life Magazine and they had a sports writer and she says, "He just came into my office. He wants to know how to reach Sidd Finch." And I said, Oh, shit. My heart dropped into my stomach. Someone had believed this fucking thing?

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