So many near-misses in sports. So many legendary careers thwarted by injury, bad timing and the other hard truths of life.
Baseball purists and trivia buffs know the story of Hayden “Sidd” Finch, the can’t-miss prospect for the New York Mets.
On this, the 35th anniversary of his come-from-nowhere debut and sudden tragic disappearance, the rest of you should too.
Finch was the phenom of all phenoms, the subject of a major Sports Illustrated story by the erudite and cheeky George Plimpton, best known then for his book “Paper Lion.”
Truly, the April 1985 piece is among the most brilliant sports articles of all time, ranking with John Updike’s extraordinary essay on Ted Williams, almost the equal to anything even the great Jim Murray penned.
Yep, that good.
You can read it here, or just trust my highlight reel.
A mysterious pitching prospect for the Mets, Finch, 28, had a napalm fastball, a Harvard background and a French horn he played like a pro, one of the many little quirks that mystified fans and sportswriters at the time.
“I have learned the art of the pitch,” he reportedly told the coach who discovered him during an impromptu tryout in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, as Finch vaporized a soda bottle placed on a fence post 60 feet away.
“It disintegrates like a rifle bullet hit it — just little specks of vaporized glass in a puff,” triple-A manager Bob Schaefer remembered later.
“I said, very calm, ‘Son, would you mind showing me that again?’”
In two seconds, Finch was in Mets camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., where coaches and execs wanted to see how he threw with a batter in the box, the sturdy Ronn Reynolds, a reserve catcher, behind the plate.
“Kid, you won’t believe what you’re about to see,” Reynolds told the first batter.
In Plimpton’s piece, hitter John Christensen, a 24-year-old outfielder, recalled the session in front of Mets owner Nelson Doubleday and general manager Frank Cashen.
“I’m standing in there to give this guy a target, just waving the bat once or twice over the plate,” recalled Christensen. “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 back like a catapult.
“The ball is launched from an arm completely straight up and stiff,” Christensen said. “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.
“I never dreamed a baseball could be thrown that fast. … As for hitting the thing, frankly, I just don’t think it’s humanly possible.”
The Mets later brought in a radar gun: 168 mph, 65 more than had ever been recorded.
The tryout created all the stir you’d expect, though there were questions. The Mets front office wouldn’t discuss Finch, where he came from, or how someone with no baseball career could show up like this and fling such missiles. It seemed the stuff of movies.
Plimpton contacted Harvard, where Finch had studied briefly, before withdrawing in 1976.
The best information came from a former roommate, Henry W. Peterson, class of 1979, who told Plimpton he saw very little of Finch.
“He was almost never there,” Peterson told SI. “I’d wake up morning after morning and look across his bed, which had a woven native carpet of some sort on it — I have an idea he told me it was made of yak fur — and never had the sense that he had slept in it.
“He had almost no belongings. A knapsack. A bowl he kept in the corner on the floor … one pair of hiking boots,” Peterson said. “I always had the feeling he was very bright. He had a French horn in an old case. I don’t know much about the French horn music, but he played beautifully. Sometimes he’d play it in the bath.”
The piece hummed with the usual SI details, of Finch’s early childhood in an English orphanage and how his foster parent, the eminent archaeologist Francis Whyte-Finch, died in a plane crash in the Dhaulagiri mountain region of Nepal.
Plimpton even reached out to Finch’s spring training contacts: his driver, his landlady.
“He lives very simply,” the landlady told Plimpton. “He has his own rug, a small little thing. … 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.”
In efforts to understand this quirky prospect, Plimpton reported, the Mets even called in a specialist in Eastern religions, Dr. Timothy Burns. Burns told Mets management that Finch was likely a trapas, or aspirant monk.
The Mets were frantic. At the time, Finch was wavering: Would baseball be his future? Or should he stick with his true love, the French horn.
Alas, no Hall of Fame career for Finch, no Ruthian stats, not even a baseball card. Life’s hard truths intervened once again.
For as it turned out, Finch was no aspirant monk. What was he? A figment of Plimpton’s vivid imagination and a grand and elaborate hoax.
A week after the article, Sports Illustrated announced Finch’s retirement. A week later, they revealed the article was all an intentional, well-executed prank.
April Fools. Again.