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‘Legend’ of Sidd Finch made fools out of many

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For the 30th season in a row, the New York Mets start the year without right-hander Sidd Finch on the roster.

Too bad. Baseball needs more characters like Finch.

In a sport filled with offbeat and quirky players, none was more unusual than Finch, who took the baseball world by storm in 1985.

What made him so special?

It wasn’t just his 168-mph fastball, pinpoint accuracy or ability to disintegrate soda bottles from 60 feet away.

It wasn’t just his most peculiar insistence on wearing a work boot on his right foot and going shoeless on the other.

It wasn’t just the French horn, Tibetan food bowl or Yak fur sleeping rug that he counted among his meager possessions.

What made Finch special on April Fools’ Day 1985 was that he did not exist.

Many baseball fans and executives alike missed that last point as they devoured a 16-page Sports Illustrated piece by great sports journalist George Plimpton, complete with photos of “Finch” working out under a circus tent at the Mets’ spring training camp.

“It never occurred to any of us that anyone would believe it,” Lane Stewart, the photographer assigned to illustrate the story, told the magazine on the 25th anniversary of the prank. “There’s been a lot of talk, at the time and since because it’s become such a phenomenon. If you weren’t alive or part of this when it happened you don’t know what a phenomenon this was.”

By the afternoon of publication, all three national television networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — were scrambling to put together stories.

“You have no idea how big this was. We just didn’t talk about people believing it,” Stewart said. “It wasn’t a subject of conversation, at any point, any time.”

In perhaps the greatest sports practical joke of all time, everyone from U.S. senators to major league executives looked past the obvious over-the-top traits of Plimpton’s character and the April 1 date of the magazine to readily believe the absurd. One sports radio talk-show host even claimed to have seen Finch.

What made the ruse work so well was the detail with which Plimpton and Stewart told the story of Finch, who was born in Tibet and spent time at Harvard before his discovery by a Mets scout.

Plimpton had free rein with Mets’ management to make up the quotes he needed for his story. That level of detail added an authenticity that seemed to make the implausible real.

“I don’t understand the mechanics of it,” highly respected New York pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre was quoted. “Anyone who tries to throw the ball that way should fall flat on his back. But I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it a hundred times. It’s the most awesome thing that has ever happened in baseball.”

For his part, Stewart recruited Joe Berton, a lanky high school teacher from St. Charles, Ill., to appear as Finch. The two set up photos “across the country” from an Oklahoma cow chip tossing contest to his Harvard dorm room to an iconic shot of the pitcher knocking over Coke cans on a Florida beach.

“To me, and Plimpton said this too, what really sold the story were Lane’s photographs,” Berton told SI. “That is Mel Stottlemyre. That is Lenny Dykstra. There’s Sidd. What sold it to the ballplayers is, they just looked at the pictures and said, ‘Geez, what’s with this guy?’”

The quality work gave life to an utterly preposterous account for 24 to 48 hours, long enough for Life Magazine to call Stewart in a frantic effort to find Finch for its next cover story.

Soon, though, a gullible public figured out the hoax. The impact of that brief fantasy, though, was lasting.

The Mets even gave Finch a retirement party at one of their games that year.

“For the generation of baseball fans that experienced this story, they come up to me and tell me their Sidd encounter and where they were when they read the magazine and how they responded,” said Berton, a Cubs fans today who is still asked for Finch autographs. “Everybody remembers Sidd Finch.”

Indeed, the lore and allure of Finch is what drives many fans to the game.

The offbeat, the unlikely, the never-before-seen — it is all part of how baseball reinvents itself each spring.

Plimpton’s piece captured a feeling that sets baseball apart. In a game where “Field of Dreams” does not seem out of place, the anticipation of the unexpected is reborn with each Opening Day.

My greatest regret as a sportswriter is that I never got to see Sidd Finch pitch in person. Then again, maybe this is the season.

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