To this day, the Mets are the only club that ever had a gangly, English-born, French horn-playing, Sanskrit-quoting, Tibetan monastery-educated pitcher who threw 168 miles an hour. This day, in fact, is an occasion to celebrate him.
Happy birthday, Sidd Finch.
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Hayden Sidd (two "d's" in honor of Siddhartha) Finch was born 27 years ago Sunday, in the imagination of author George Plimpton, through the lens of Lane Stewart and on the pages of Sports Illustrated.
"The Curious Case of Sidd Finch," a 14-page story on the Mets' secret phenom, is the greatest April Fools' Day hoax in sports history. It seemed so real that, according to Mets vice president for public relations Jay Horwitz -- who was quoted in the original story and helped set it up -- the sports editor of a New York newspaper called him in a rage. "He said, 'How could you leak the story to Sports Illustrated? We cover you guys on a daily basis! It's not fair! It's not right!' " Horwitz recalled the other day. "I didn't really say anything."
What made it all so believable was a collection of photographs by Stewart, who enlisted a tall, thin buddy to wear a Mets uniform and appear as Finch in shots at spring training -- taking an elaborately goofy windup, pitching with one work boot and one bare foot, conferring with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. Joe Berton, then a middle school art teacher outside Chicago, simply looked like the Sidd Finch that Plimpton's mind created.
Berton still revels in the memory. He never will forget the day the issue came out. "One of the kids in school saw the magazine before I did," Berton said this week. "He said, 'Are you still going to be our teacher? I didn't know you were a big baseball player.' "
No one knew it was going to be such a big deal. Berton, an ardent Cubs fan, used to tag along with Stewart to spring training after the two became friendly during Stewart's assignment about toy soldiers, which Berton designs and makes. In 1985, Stewart said they were going to Mets camp in St. Petersburg and that Berton was going to "be" the eccentric yogi who had mystifying pitching powers.
"I borrowed a French horn from the music teacher and I went to Pier 1 and bought a bowl and a rug," Berton said. Once he got there, he was amazed at how the Mets embraced the whole thing. "We played it low-key. We weren't hanging out with the big stars. We kind of hung out with the younger guys, trying to make the team. They were saying, 'Am I going to be in the magazine?' "
Yes, they did get in. One of the youngsters was Lenny Dykstra. For the most part, the fictional Sidd had free rein. "Some of the Mets guys figured, 'Oh, he's just a friend of [Nelson] Doubleday. Let him do what he wants,' " Berton said.
Plimpton's publisher at the time was Doubleday, which probably didn't hurt when the author approached general manager Frank Cashen with the scheme. The organization bought in, even after the story came out and before Sports Illustrated confessed the prank.
"We burned a hole in Ronn Reynolds' catcher's mitt, and said that was from his curveball, which was 110 miles an hour," Horwitz said. Berton recalled hearing that reporters demanded to see Finch and were told by Stottlemyre, "He's gone. You've got to get here by 6 a.m."
At least one rival baseball executive called the Mets, complaining that they never had heard of this prospect, Horwitz said, adding that a Mets executive replied, "Well, sometimes guys fall through the cracks." Berton heard that a staffer for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) called Sports Illustrated to see if the story was legitimate because Moynihan was making bets on the Mets with Senate colleagues.
Finch lives on, even though he never existed. The Mets invited Berton back for a Sidd Finch Day two years later. To this day, people still recognize Berton, 58, as that gawky pitcher. That happens especially when he goes to Wrigley Field or U.S. Cellular Field (his two sons are White Sox diehards).
Berton never brings it up on his own, but Sidd does surface every now and again and always gets a reaction. "To some of my friends," he said, "it's still a new story."