The vast majority of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S longtime readers undoubtedly remember exactly what they were doing when they opened up the April 1, 1985, issue and read about Sidd Finch, the English-born kid with the 168-mph fastball who had joined the New York Mets at their spring training camp in St. Petersburg the month before. Because of the date on the magazine's cover many readers felt they were being victimized by an April Fools' hoax. More than 2,000 of them wrote letters, some of them extremely angry at the magazine's decision to do such a thing.
The editors were startled, to put it mildly. At a hastily called meeting of the top brass, it was decided to go along with the public's assumption that the whole thing was a charade; the magazine would deny that Sidd Finch ever existed.
This was extremely upsetting to George Plimpton, the author of the article (The Curious Case of Sidd Finch), who complained bitterly that his hard work, his hound's nose for digging up the astonishing facts, his breaking through the wall of silence that the Mets had constructed around their phenomenon and his chance to win prestigious journalism awards were all now to be callously dismissed and the story written off as an elaborate practical joke. "You're knuckling under, caving in to public opinion!" Plimpton shouted at the staff meeting. "Shame! Shame! Puppets!"
Finch himself was apparently not bothered in the slightest by SI's decision to deny his existence. By all accounts, especially those from within the Mets organization, he was so withdrawn and shy as to be almost invisible.
For those not aware of Finch or the commotion he caused, a short word or so of explanation: Carrying a French horn, Sidd (two d's to honor Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism) had turned up at the Mets' training camp in the spring of 1985 for a tryout as a pitcher. English-born, he had spent a few years in a Tibetan monastery where, through a science called Lung-Gom, he had learned to throw an object at a target with extraordinary velocity and accuracy—a skill that he evidently had used during his monastery years to peg stones at snow leopards coming down out of the rhododendron forests to prey on the yaks in their pens. Quite naturally Finch began to wonder if there were not a more efficacious use for his talents, and with some misgivings he had come to America to try a baseball career.
Not long after Finch arrived at the Mets' camp, Mel Stottlemyre, then the team's pitching coach, used a Jugs radar gun to measure the prospect's fastball. To Stottlemyre's astonishment the readout said 168 mph, more than half again as fast as any pitcher had ever thrown a ball. The Mets realized that they had a revolutionary—if strange and idiosyncratic—force in their midst. One of Finch's more startling mannerisms was his habit of pitching with his left foot bare, an odd sight to see: his toes poised high in the air as he arched his back in his windup. This technique was apparently used to achieve the delicate balance required of his fearsome delivery.
SI's April 1 article went to press before Finch had actually pitched in a game. Inexplicably the pitcher (described by one awed witness as "a guy who could throw a strawberry through a locomotive") left the Mets' training camp and baseball, one rumor being that he had fallen in love with a young Duke dropout named Debbie Sue Palmer. Finch soon began to fade from public consciousness.
Several years later, however, in part because of concerns that the wrong decision had been made at the 1985 staff meeting (and ultimately fearful of a scandal, as inevitably results from such a cover-up) SI decided to reopen the matter and begin new research as to the whereabouts of Finch. In the summer of 1994 the magazine contacted its stringers around the world and asked them to send what information they could find about the would-be pitcher.
One early report, oddly, came in from Beaver, Okla., where the annual World Cow Chip Throwing Championships are held. The officials there keep careful records. In 1979 Leland Searcy flung a chip 182'3", the longest throw since the event began in 1970. In '94 (so the report goes) a stranger appeared at the judging table as the afternoon of hurling cow chips was coming to a close and politely asked if he could compete. Tom Jakes, one of the judges contacted by SI, remembers the man as a "gangling sort of fellow, cowboy build," except he spoke with what Jakes took to be an "Eastern" accent. "He said he was kind of curious about what was going on and wanted to try," Jakes recalls. "I asked if he had ever flung a chip, and he said he hadn't. Well, we don't like to have amateurs fooling with cow chip slinging unless they know what they're doing. You don't want one of those things fired into the crowd. There's skill involved."
Apparently the stranger persuaded the judges to let him try. What then occurred rendered just about all the witnesses speechless. The stranger stepped up, took off one boot, hefted a cow chip gently, getting the feel of it, and then in a whirlwind motion, one bare foot high in the air, let it fly. "Looked like a golf ball going off into the distance," Jakes recalls. "Went over Tom McGrew's barn down t' far end of the field and out into his cow pasture. Lot of other cow chips out there, so we never did figure out which one was the stranger's, but he'd doggone thrown that thing farther than the length of a football field!