As of this writing, the former pitching prospect known as Sidd Finch is 58 years old. How old is that? As old as Rick Sutcliffe. Or Lance Parrish. Put another way: If Finch were real, right now he would sitting at a table at a TRISTAR Collectors Show, charging $40 for his autograph. Twenty bucks extra if you want it inscribed.
Finch, of course, isn’t real. He was the product of perhaps the most successful sportswriting hoax of all time. The head plotter was George Plimpton, who conjured up an unknown pitcher who wandered into Mets camp with a 168-mile-per-hour fastball. Plimpton’s “profile,” which appeared in the April Fools’ Day 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated, began, “The secret cannot be kept much longer … ” As a new 30 for 30 short shows, Plimpton then tried to keep a straight face as sportswriters scrambled to match the story. Eventually, a lot of annoyed reporters filed stories like this.
Our question: Could a Finch-style hoax work today? We’re a lot more wised-up about baseball prospects than we were in 1985. But we’re also more consumed with tracking them and cataloguing them — we want to believe. Thirty years after Finch, you might say we’re just naive enough to see him out there on the backfields.
The Finch incident began as pure luck: SI editor Mark Mulvoy discovered that one of the magazine’s issues would bear the date of April 1. Mulvoy summoned Plimpton to the office, and it was decided that Plimpton would gin up a spoof. According to Michael MacCambridge’s book The Franchise, Plimpton’s first idea was that Finch would be Appalachian — a Bumgarneresque man of the earth. Editor Myra Gelband countered that Finch should be from Harvard. Plimpton was so delighted by the idea, MacCambridge reported, that he walked home from SI headquarters in the rain.
Plimpton pounded his keyboard to create the perfect fake ballplayer. Finch was raised in an orphanage in Leicester, England. His adoptive father, an “eminent archaeologist,” was killed in a plane crash in Nepal’s Dhaulagiri Mountains. (“The plane was never actually found,” Plimpton added in a particularly fine touch.) Finch played the French horn. He was a polyglot: “he’d use a phrase like ‘pied-à-terre,’” Finch’s Harvard roommate reported, “and without knowing it he’d sail along in French for a while until he’d drop in a German word like ‘angst’ and he’d shift to that language.”
All of this sounds like an obvious fraud today. But Plimpton populated his tale with enough real people to give it at least the faint ring of truth. He “quoted” the Mets’ Mel Stottlemyre and Lenny Dykstra; Bob Schaefer, who now works for the Nationals; even A. Robert Johnson of New York Philomusica, who attested to Finch’s skill with the French horn. SI employed the literary technique of false document, including one bogus handwritten scouting report for Finch (“GAWKY STRING-BEAN TYPE. NO VISIBLE INJURIES”). It all gave credence to Plimpton’s claim that Finch “may well change the course of baseball history.”
The Plimpton story might have been fiction, but it worked because it plucked several real notes. The first was the idea of a phenom walking out of obscurity and onto a diamond. “Phenom is the term that really resonates with me for Sidd Finch,” said John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball. “A phenom is someone not on your organization’s depth chart — as if someone cared about those things back then. Someone like Fernando Valenzuela or Mark Fidrych, who appeared out of nowhere to rescue their teams’ fortunes. This is Joe Hardy stuff. There will be a savior and you don’t know his name.”
The Finch story honored the legend of bird-dog scouting. A grizzled, tobacco-chewing lifer looks across a sandlot … and sees the kid who could change his life. “Everyone would know the scout who found the guy,” said Kevin Goldstein, the Houston Astros director of pro scouting. “That’s on his résumé. You’d meet him and you’d say, ‘That’s the guy who found Sidd Finch!’”
The idea of Finch throwing a 168-mile-per-hour fastball was absurd — and, as 30 for 30 reports, the result of a Plimpton typo that SI decided to keep. But it honored another ’80s fascination: the cult of the radar gun.
“Back then, velocity was rare,” said SI.com’s Jay Jaffe. “Nolan Ryan with his 100-mile-per-hour fastball was the standard. There was nobody else around with maybe the brief exception of J.R. Richard. If somebody came along with triple digits — forget the hyperbole of 168 miles per hour — that certainly made our hair stand up.”
Finally, Finch was a ballplayer with culture. A funny subplot had him deciding whether to play for the Mets or devote himself full-time to the French horn. This, too, honors a fantasy. “What it does is it embodies the fantasy of every educated baseball fan,” said Thorn. “I’ve already got the French horn side. I’ve just got to work a little bit on my fastball.”
If we update the references, Plimpton produced a character that was equal parts David Clyde, Million Dollar Arm, and the “weird” intern from the Paris Review bullpen. Which was just odd enough to be believable.
Could Sports Illustrated pull off a Finch-style hoax today? It’s a complicated question thanks to two countervailing forces. The first is the army of baseball fans online who’d read the first couple of paragraphs of such a piece, start tweeting at Keith Law, and immediately spoil the ruse. The second force is the prospect-industrial complex that has risen since 1985. Thanks to Baseball America and its many cousins, phenom-hunting competes for our brain space with actual, Major League baseball. It’s necessary stuff. Focusing on prospects makes it possible to be a diligent student of baseball and also a Mets fan.
So how could a hoaxing journalist create Finch 2.0? His birthplace would be crucial. “Eastern Kentucky,” said Thorn. “Let him be a Dizzy Dean sort. You definitely want a hick, a rube. We’re talking about archetypes here. … You want somebody who has no idea of how good he is.”
But an American Finch would set off alarm bells. Why didn’t Finch get drafted out of high school? Similarly, if Finch were a Dominican prospect, we’d wonder why he hadn’t been lured into an academy at age 16. Maybe Finch 2.0 could be from Cuba. Or even from a lightly scouted country like China, where baseball is taking hold and where Jeremy Guthrie did a diplomatic tour last year. “Who’s to say there’s not going to be a Yao Ming situation, where a 6-foot-11 guy is throwing 99?” said Kevin Goldstein.
Finch’s age would have to be lowered from 28. “We know too much about athletic performance peaks for 28 to really fly,” said Jay Jaffe. A skeptical reader would immediately think, Why hadn’t Finch had Tommy John surgery? We also know too much about the limits of human performance to believe a 168-mile-per-hour fastball, or even a 108-mile-per-hour fastball.
The writer who brought Finch 2.0 to the world couldn’t be a novelist. We wouldn’t trust Chad Harbach to tell us about prospects. We might trust Keith Law, however. Or Ben Badler. Or Jim Callis.
Mere words wouldn’t cut it. We would almost certainly demand to see video. Maybe the most Finchian artifacts to come along in recent years were the Yoenis Cespedes videos that surfaced in 2011, when Cespedes had barely been seen outside Cuba. The videos were bizarre, near-mythic things. One had Cespedes working out on a beach; it had him swimming the Jarabacoa River in the Dominican Republic; it had no less than Peter Gammons attesting that he was a real person. Even Plimpton probably wouldn’t have gone that far.
The alternative is to argue that we don’t need fictional Finches. We have real Finches. “There are all sorts of tall tales, and I think a lot of them are true,” Goldstein said from spring training. “I’ve got a 28-year-old here that’s going to Triple-A. His name is James Hoyt. He didn’t get drafted. He was working 9-to-5 jobs. He went to a tryout — but didn’t really try out. He played indie ball.”
“There’s a good chance he’ll pitch in the big leagues this year,” Goldstein continued. “That’s a real dude.”
So if Sports Illustrated unveiled a long-form feature about a 28-year-old no-name who’d arrived in Mets camp with blank résumé, a talent for music, and a 99-mile-per-hour heater?
“Honestly,” Goldstein said, “I think I’d say, ‘Let’s go to St. Lucie and see what he looks like.’”