Wednesday, April 1, 2009
An Old Baseball April Fools' Hoax
By ALAN SCHWARZ
Published: April 1, 2005
It still happens on the Wrigley Field concession lines. It happens as he walks down Michigan Avenue. It even happened, in all places, while sipping a lager in an Oxford pub.
"Sidd Finch! You're Sidd Finch! Hey Sidd, can I get your autograph?"
After 20 years, for Joe Berton, the line remains a little blurred. Ninety-nine percent of his waking moments are spent as Joe Berton, mild-mannered junior high school art teacher in Oak Park, Ill. But that other 1 percent, he is still Sidd Finch, baseball's greatest pitching prospect.
It was 20 years ago this week that Sports Illustrated ran one of its most celebrated articles, "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch" - in which George Plimpton crafted a 14-page exposé on a bizarre, out-of-nowhere Mets phenom who fired baseballs at a stupefying 168 miles an hour. "Crafted," of course, is what Plimpton truly did - the story was pure fiction. It instantly became its generation's "War of the Worlds," leaving thousands of frenzied fans either delighted at the April Fools' prank or furious at being duped.
The story was fiction for all but one person - Joe Berton, a gangly, 6-foot-4 Chicagoan who modeled for all the pictures, and to this day is recognized by dreamy fans as the actual Sidd Finch.
"I was at one of the Cubs' playoff games in 2003, I'm lining up for a beer, and this guy goes: 'You're Sidd Finch! I can't believe it!' " recalled Berton, 51. "He asked me to sign his program. I find that almost everybody loves to recount their moment with the story - where they were when they read it and what it meant to them. It's like they really wanted Sidd to be real."
The hoax began at Sports Illustrated's offices in early 1985. The managing editor, Mark Mulvoy, noticed that a cover date would fall on April 1, and asked Plimpton to write an article on April Fools' jokes in sports. Most of them wound up being you-had-to-be-there shenanigans, leaving Plimpton discouraged.
"Mark said, 'Why don't you do your own?' " Plimpton, who died in September 2003, recalled in a 1995 interview. "He gave me license to do anything I wanted. What a fantastic feeling, to create something with your own mind."
Plimpton's creation became the most famous fictional ballplayer since Mighty Casey.
Sidd Finch was an aspiring monk who spent much of his orphaned youth in England, went to Harvard, dropped out after one semester and learned to pitch in the mountains of Tibet, flinging rocks and meditating. He was discovered by a Mets minor league manager who watched in awe as the gawky string bean would wind up - he looked like Goofy in the old Disney cartoons - and throw pitches so fast and accurate that they vaporized soda bottles standing 60 feet away. The radar guns read an unfathomable 168; Nolan Ryan's heater was just a changeup compared with this kid's.
The Mets signed Finch and brought him to spring training in a shroud of secrecy. It was there that Berton got involved.
The photographer Lane Stewart needed someone to pose for all the pictures: Sidd talking with the Mets' pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre; Sidd pitching (as always) in one work boot and one bare foot; Sidd carrying his ever-present French horn. Stewart immediately cast his pal Berton, who when not teaching art at a suburban Chicago middle school occasionally assisted him on local shoots, and who bore an eerie resemblance to Plimpton's imagined Finch: tall, shyly awkward, with feet and ears a few sizes too big.
Stewart recalled the conversation with Berton:
"Joe, the Mets have this pitcher down in Florida I have to go shoot," Stewart said. "He plays the French horn, his only possessions are a rug and food bowl, and he pitches in one work boot. And he's got this 168-mile-an-hour fastball. Can you come with me?"
"Great!" Berton said.
"There's only one catch - you're going to be him."
Selected Mets officials were among the few people (including Sports Illustrated editors) even slightly aware of what the magazine was up to. They issued Berton a uniform and allowed him full access to their spring training complex, even letting him sit in the bullpen during exhibition games as Stewart clicked away. Fans would ask the weird-looking guy in the No. 21 jersey if he was trying out for the club, and he would reply: "Yeah. You'll hear about it later."
Did they ever. When Sports Illustrated hit the newsstands several days before the April 1 cover date, "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch" staggered baseball and beyond. Two major league general managers called the new commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, to ask how Finch's opponents could even stand at the plate safely against a fastball like that. The sports editor of one New York newspaper berated the Mets' public relations man, Jay Horwitz, for giving Sports Illustrated the scoop. The St. Petersburg Times sent a reporter to find Finch, and a radio talk-show host proclaimed he had actually spotted the phenom - who, truth be told, was back in Oak Park teaching art at Hawthorne Junior High.
Alas, the enchanting details of Plimpton's story were also its downfall. Harvard and Tibet and the French horn and the 168-m.p.h. heater - people were gradually brought back to earth by more skeptical acquaintances. (For his part, Plimpton always loved how the seventh definition of "finch" in his Oxford English Dictionary was "small lie.") As word spread over several days that the first letters of the article's secondary headline read, "Happy April Fools'," the jig was up.
Berton became a star. Television crews from across the nation went to his home and school to interview him, to have him wear the boot and throw. He became Sidd Finch to thousands of fans and was recognized wherever he went. Even in England a few months later, a man almost spilled his drink at the sight of him in an Oxford pub.
"You're Sidd Finch!" he said. "You're in Oxford!"
Soon after the hoax was revealed, the Mets decided to stage Sidd Finch Retirement Day. Berton told an oddly dejected crowd, "The perfect pitch, once a thing of harmony, is now an instrument of chaos and cruelty." He received a standing ovation as he walked down the foul line for the last time.
"People started handing me baseballs to sign, and the first ball had Dwight Gooden and Gary Carter on it," Berton recalled. "I just looked up and said: 'You don't want me to sign this. You've got Gooden and Carter on here.' They said: 'No, Sidd, sign it! Please?' So I put 'Sidd Finch' on it, and kept walking down the line signing autographs."
To those not furious at Sports Illustrated - several readers angrily canceled their subscriptions - Sidd Finch came to embody a piece of baseball's eternal dreaminess, its belief that someday, someone might come out of nowhere with a pitching arm touched by the heavens. It didn't take long for Sidd Finch T-shirts to appear; "Sidd Finch Lives!" bumper stickers lasted for 10 or 15 years. Even now, people who recognize Berton usually speak to him as if Sidd Finch existed.
"I'm not sure there would be the willingness to suspend disbelief like that in any other sport," said Myra Gelband, the story's original editor and now a freelance consultant in Rowayton, Conn. "There's no single sport that has the hold on our dreams and fantasies the way baseball does. Sidd has become a symbol, like the cornfield in Iowa."
After 20 years, the commotion has somewhat subsided for Berton; his students were not even born when the Sidd Finch story came out. But he still encounters people for whom Sidd Finch means something. What they do not realize is how much Finch means to him.
Growing up in St. Charles, Ill., Berton would play catch until dusk and try out for youth baseball teams, but, like so many boys, he was never good enough to enjoy the heroics he dreamed for himself. All too often he was marooned in right field, where he could do the least damage.
He is not much better as a player today. But every now and then, Berton's children will goad him into trying the speed-pitch booth at Comiskey Park, and even after registering 60 m.p.h. or so, he will be recognized by other fans. "It's Sidd Finch!" they cry. "Hey Sidd, how's the arm?" And Berton will chat with them for 10 minutes about being the greatest pitching prospect baseball ever saw.
"It's never old to him," said Berton's wife, Gloria. "He absolutely loves it. Even now, at parties, people will go by and say, 'Hey, you're Sidd Finch!' He's just tickled, because he never was an athlete. He doesn't deny the fact that he had heroes as a kid. And suddenly, he was one himself."