Recounting: The 163-mph Hoax Is About to Turn 26

This was one of my favorite posts I ever wrote. It’s not even really about the Cubs. But since April Fools’ Day is almost upon us (it’s Opening Day, appropriately enough), I thought I’d break it out in anticipation (and awareness that I won’t be posting here when that day rolls around).

One barefoot, boot-clad hurler put one by us in unforgettable fashion.

I’ll never forget the cool April evening when my dad came to dinner carrying an issue of Sports Illustrated. That was enough right there, you understand. It really didn’t matter what came next from his lips. My jaw hit the table when I saw that strange concoction of contradictions before me: my dad, an open issue of SI in his hand, and a look of transported glee on his face. This. Did not. Compute.

Two things you have to understand about my dad: 1) He hates sports. He likes to listen to Ron Santo and Pat Hughes on the radio because he loves radio and the hilarious interplay that unfolds between the pitches. He used to like to go to baseball games in Cleveland (near where my mom’s family lived) and hockey games in Detroit (where he grew up) because he enjoyed strolling the arenas and watching fights break out in the stands. He even liked coming to watch me play baseball or even bringing me and my siblings to Wrigley, because he loves me. But make no mistake—my dad hates sports. 2) He’s a professional reader. He is to oral interpretation what Vin Scully is to baseball play-by-play. For almost my whole life he’s been the host of the internationally syndicated Music thru the Night, which (if my numbers aren’t lying to me) is the top-rated late-night radio program in Chicago. My point is, the man can read a story. And when he finds a story he likes, you can be pretty sure that he will read it to you until you like it even more.

It was this second trait that so obviously won out that night, and my curiosity was piqued as to why a sports journal would, for once, trigger my father’s passion for storytelling. He sat down, donned his reading glasses, quieted the room with his eyes (no small feat with six kids huddled around the table), and said in his deep yet gleefully quivering radio voice: “Listen . . . to . . . thissssss.”

He began with the headline and subhead: “The Curious Case Of Sidd Finch. He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga—and his future in baseball.”

Okay. My dad was reading me a story about baseball. Or Yogi Bear. I wasn’t sure, but either way, he had my attention.

The secret cannot be kept much longer. Questions are being asked, and sooner rather than later the New York Mets management will have to produce a statement. It may have started unraveling in St. Petersburg, Fla. two weeks ago, on March 14, to be exact, when Mel Stottlemyre, the Met pitching coach, walked over to the 40-odd Met players doing their morning calisthenics at the Payson Field Complex not far from the Gulf of Mexico, a solitary figure among the pulsation of jumping jacks, and motioned three Mets to step out of the exercise. The three, all good prospects, were John Christensen, a 24-year-old outfielder; Dave Cochrane, a spare but muscular switch-hitting third baseman; and Lenny Dykstra, a swift centerfielder who may be the Mets’ lead-off man of the future.

The Mets? If my nine-going-on-ten brain could have manufactured a WTF thought bubble, it surely would have done so. The 1985 baseball season was just beginning. (Incidentally, the NCAA men’s basketball championship was played later that night. I put a dime down on Villanova. That’s not Vegas parlance, either. I bet my mom, the true sports lover in the family, ten cents Villanova would beat Georgetown. She called me crazy, but I won ten cents and the faulty belief that I could predict sporting events.) The heartbreak of ’84 was still fresh in my mind, and I had become all too familiar with the history of Cub collapses that predated my foolish allegiance to the only baseball team I’ll ever love. The Mets, I knew, were nothing short of pure, black-cat evil. If this story was about the Mets, I wanted no part in its horror.

“Wait a minute, now listen!” my dad assured me, noticing my visible disgust and withdrawal. He read on, setting up the story of how each Met batsman stepped into a canvas enclosure, obscured from the curious eyes of the media. Out stepped a gangling, awkward clown of a pitcher with a hiking boot on his right foot and not so much as a sock on his left. Every hitter just watched, or tried to, as the pitches zoomed by in furious blurs of white, ending with a musket-like pop of the catcher’s mitt and an agonized whelp of pain from behind the catcher’s clenched teeth.

Our dinner sat there losing steam as my dad did quite the opposite, reading on in a crescendo of uncharacteristic baseball fervor:

The phenomenon the three young batters faced, and about whom only [reserve catcher Ronn] Reynolds, Stottlemyre and a few members of the Mets’ front office know, is a 28-year-old, somewhat eccentric mystic named Hayden (Sidd) Finch. He may well change the course of baseball history. On St. Patrick’s Day, to make sure they were not all victims of a crazy hallucination, the Mets brought in a radar gun to measure the speed of Finch’s fastball. The model used was a JUGS Supergun II. It looks like a black space gun with a big snout, weighs about five pounds and is usually pointed at the pitcher from behind the catcher. A glass plate in the back of the gun shows the pitch’s velocity—accurate, so the manufacturer claims, to within plus or minus 1 mph. The figure at the top of the gauge is 200 mph. The fastest projectile ever measured by the JUGS (which is named after the oldtimer’s descriptive—the “jug-handled” curveball) was a Roscoe Tanner serve that registered 153 mph. The highest number that the JUGS had ever turned for a baseball was 103 mph, which it did, curiously, twice on one day, July 11, at the 1978 All-Star game when both Goose Gossage and Nolan Ryan threw the ball at that speed. On March 17, the gun was handled by Stottlemyre. He heard the pop of the ball in Reynolds’s mitt and the little squeak of pain from the catcher. Then the astonishing figure 168 appeared on the glass plate. Stottlemyre remembers whistling in amazement, and then he heard Reynolds say, “Don’t tell me, Mel, I don’t want to know….”

My dad read the whole article, every word, but I had lost my appetite both for the hamburger and potato casserole and for the sad tale of an unhittable pitcher ensnared in the dastardly clutches of the New York Metropolitans. My dad kept reading the account of the mystic hurler’s idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes, and the off chance that his reclusive nature would prevent him from ever joining the official ranks of Major League Baseball. But all I could think of were the ramifications this development would bring to bear on my Cubs.

Hope escaped from my soul like air from a slow-leaking balloon. No, I thought, this can’t happen. This mustn’t happen.

And it didn’t. A couple of weeks later during a 10:00 newscast, during which my dad was already asleep . . . and I probably should have been as well, the glorious truth came to light. The story was a hoax, published on April 1, 1985, and crafted with wicked mastery by the late, great George Plimpton. The giveaway had been hiding all along, like some balloon boy in his wacko parent’s garage, in the subhead on the very first page. The lead-in, “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga,” formed an acrostic greeting welcoming all fools to enter gullibly in. Happy April Fool’s Day.

I was delighted. Not only were the Mets brought back down to this planet, but my dad’s excitement had been for naught. At first I was excited to tell him how wrong he was, but then whatever form of ill-developed compassion I had within me took over. I didn’t want to make a fool out of my dad. I didn’t think he was foolish. I thought he was cool. He had taken an interest in baseball, or at least the part of it that he could get excited about, and imparted it to the whole family. And, indirectly at least, he was on the news! The story he read to us and our collective bamboozlement had become a small part of a national hoax. What did it matter that Sidd Finch was fake? The moment was real.

My dad wasn’t big on throwing the ball around, obviously. But I don’t regret for an instant that he read me a story instead of throwing me a fastball. That’s who my dad is, a guy who sits amazed by the human element of baseball and completely disinterested in the baseball part of it. I would take that memory and the thousands of other ones like it over 100 games of catch.

No fooling.

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