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 l68-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those from within the Mets organization, he was so withdrawn and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
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
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!
"A lot of people got mad, in particular Leland Searcy, who had
the record. The feeling was that this fella must've doctored the
cow chip--put a solid object in there of some kind, bolts or
something, because there is no way in tarnation that a cow chip
can go that distance."
The Beaver officials were so unbelieving of the mystery man's
astonishing toss (SI is certain that it was Finch, because of his
habit of removing one shoe) that they disallowed it. "I felt sort
of sorrowful seeing that stranger walk off into the sunset,"
Jakes told SI. "It could have been the greatest thing that ever
happened in Beaver, but the way people reacted he's lucky he
didn't get ridden out of town on a rail. Folks thought he was
making a mockery out of our cow chip contest, said he was one of
them pariahs. What made me feel better about him leaving that way
was he had this fine-looking young woman with him who was wearing
a red cowboy hat with a feather stuck in it. She was holding him
around the waist as they walked out of town."
SI's editors theorized that Finch might have returned to England,
his native country, and suspected that, given his extraordinary
throwing ability, he might have given cricket a try. Evidently,
as the magazine was able to discover, he did so four years ago
with a village team in Staffordshire. Simon Darrell III, a local
cricket authority, remembers the afternoon.
"Only saw him that one day," says Darrell. "Flint, was it? Oh,
Finch! Yes. Of course. Extraordinary chap. Interesting situation.
Absolutely deadly. Chippy Collins positively white-faced when he
went to the wicket to face him. Trouble with Finch was, couldn't
bowl the ball properly. The arm has to be absolutely stiff. Can't
bend the elbow. We call that 'chucking.' Quite illegal, and the
umpire calls out, 'No ball.'
"Chap only wore one shoe. Never saw a man run up to the wicket
wearing only one shoe. Reminded me a bit of Fiery Fred Truman,
England's fast bowler. They say Jeff Thompson, that Australian
hippie chap with the big flop of hair, was the fastest, just
under 160 kilometers an hour, but I would say this fellow--Finch,
was it?--was much faster. You couldn't see the ball. Hard to
believe. Like a rifle shot hit the stumps, bails flying all over
the place, but always the umpire calling out, 'No ball.' 'No
ball.' 'No ball.' Quite sad, really. Leggatt, the captain,
finally took him off, put him out at third man at the boundary,
ignominious fielding position out there, only for chaps who can't
catch anything hit their way. The rains came just before tea.
Smashing American girl was with him. Wore a T-shirt that said
BOOM BOOM on the front."
Darrell sent SI an interesting note a few days later. "May I add
this," he wrote. "Frankly, Finch did not seem to me to be
'chucking it.' With that arm windmilling that fast, it was hard
to tell whether the elbow was bent. The thought crossed my mind
that everyone around the grounds that afternoon just thought that
it would be best if he were not seen there again. Not good for
The cricket episode happened in 1996. There were no confirmed
reports after that, merely rumors. Finch was variously said to be
living quietly in the large London town house he had inherited
from his father, sporting on the beaches of Fiji with a
breathtaking blonde, coaching astronauts on weightlessness for
trips in space. One rumor suggested he had returned to a monastic
life in Bhutan. But SI is now of the opinion that some episodes
reported in recent weeks by its correspondents in England suggest
that Finch is engaging in new athletic pursuits.
Item: On the 3rd of February, Mrs. Julia Applegate of Sussex
reported to the police that while knitting in the parlor on the
second floor of her home, what appeared to be a cannonball burst
through a window in a splinter of glass shards and rumbled across
the floor, knocking over a birdcage stand. Mrs. Applegate, who
had just put down a memoir of the Duke of Wellington to take up
her knitting, shouted, "Napoleon!" (this by her account),
apparently under the impression the French army was attacking the
Item: Quite nearby on the following day, Cynthia Bosworth, a
schoolteacher, was walking with her grandmother in a fen when,
with a slight whisper, a spear embedded itself in the turf not a
yard away. The grandmother looked skyward and evidently (this
according to her granddaughter) harking back to the days of the
German air raids, remarked, "Goodness, what will they think of
dropping on us next!"
Item: Last spring, in the Staffordshire village of Rugeley, at a
pub named The Hat and Hounds, a game of darts was in progress. A
stranger entered the premises with a striking young woman whose
accent no one could identify. She kept egging her companion on to
join the game and eventually, somewhat wearily, he agreed. The
scoring had to be explained to him.
A witness, Tim Bonds, reported what occurred next: "Ere's wha'
'appens. Nobody like 'im ever 'ere at The 'At an' 'Ounds!" Bonds
went on to say that the stranger, a thinnish bloke in his early
40s, reared back, one leg high toward the ceiling, cocked his arm
and snapped it forward with such force that the dart went deep
into the board. The pub's strongman, a sheet-metal worker named
Nick Fairchild, had to brace himself with two feet against the
wall to try to dislodge the embedded dart. In fact, in doing so,
he pulled the entire dartboard off its moorings, falling backward
onto a table. While this was going on, the stranger and the young
woman left the pub and were never seen again in the village.
Item: A second spear materialized in the wall of a porch in
Staffordshire, where four ladies in a bridge club were playing a
hand. Recalls Mrs. Forrest MacLeod, "I had just raised my
partner's heart bid to three, holding four of her suit to the
jack-10 along with some outside help, when suddenly there was the
thud of a projectile going into the wall above our heads.
Charlene Smith to my left passed, and my partner bid a small slam
in hearts, which she made, and we won the rubber. Very
The Staffordshire police looked into each of the odd occurrences.
It was discovered that the cannonball that landed in Mrs.
Applegate's parlor was actually an iron ball of the type thrown
by shot-putters and that the two spears were, in fact, javelins
used in track meets. When the report was published in a local
newspaper, an alert SI reporter, vacationing nearby, went to the
police station. He learned that near Mrs. Applegate's home the
police had found a lone hiking boot with the carefully lettered
initials sf on the heel. The police had brought the boot to the
station more in the interest of groundskeeping than of linking it
to the shot or the javelins. The SI reporter, however, made the
connection: Sidd Finch! His assumption was that Finch had hurried
from the scene, leaving his boot behind in his haste, worried
about discovery and surely too embarrassed to retrieve his errant
shot from Mrs. Applegate's parlor.
The SI reporter asked to see where the police had found the boot.
Taken to the spot, he measured the distance to Mrs. Applegate's
window: approximately 105 feet, more than a third again as far as
Randy Barnes's 1990 world-record shot toss of 75'10 1/4"! So the
questions hang in the air: Is Finch dabbling in various field
events, perhaps even contemplating a run at the 2000 Olympic
Games in Sydney? (As it happens, Great Britain's Olympic track
and field trials are being held August 12-13 in Birmingham; so
convinced are the magazine's editors that Finch will show up--even
though he is not technically eligible to compete--that they are
sending a writer and three photographers to await his arrival.)
SI contacted Robert Temple (author of a sketchy 1987 book also
titled The Curious Case of Sidd Finch), who has followed Finch's
travels as best he could. The magazine apprised Temple of what
its operatives had recently learned. Temple is convinced that
Finch is preparing for the Sydney Olympics. "He has this
extraordinary gift," Temple says of Finch, "this astonishing arm.
He would surely wish to utilize it, as he once did by playing
Moreover, Temple thinks that Finch's girlfriend, Ms. Palmer,
"will press Sidd to go to Sydney and unleash his talents,
suggesting, for example, that if Finch wows the Australians at
the Games, the newspapers will begin referring to the city as
Temple believes that Finch will concentrate on the javelin. The
shot is a comparatively brutish instrument compared to the lean,
aesthetic lines of the javelin. More importantly, the highlands
of Tibet, where Finch had his schooling in Lung-Gom, are where
the ancient spear-throwing implement known as the atlatl (a
slinglike device strapped to the arm and used to great effect for
hunting) is thought to have been developed. "Finch is a
traditionalist," Temple says. "The javelin would appeal to him."
Oddly, the biggest problem facing Finch stems from the prodigious
distance he can hurl an object. His heaves would almost certainly
sail well beyond the confines of any Olympic venue. Temple's
theory is that Finch can only throw an object at top velocity
(remember the dartboard episode), that any diminution of his
motion would throw the whole apparatus off-kilter. "Finch has
great control," Temple says, "but he can't control distance."
Temple is reminded of the adage of the golfing gorilla, who is
handed a driver and hits a ball 503 yards to the green. Once
there, he is handed a putter, looks down at the ball and hits it
Because of this problem Temple's notion is that Finch is learning
to throw the javelin in a high arc, with the trajectory of a
mortar shell, so that it will come down and stick in the ground
far enough away to win a gold medal but not so far as to cause
controversy or disbelief, much less injuries in the stands. This
would explain the odd phenomenon of a javelin descending
vertically out of the heavens and startling Cynthia Bosworth and
her grandmother in the Staffordshire fen.
Recently, on the off chance that George Plimpton had been in
touch with Finch since writing the original article, and might be
able to add to Temple's speculations, SI telephoned Plimpton in
New York City. The call was placed somewhat tentatively, since
Plimpton had been dropped from the magazine in 1991 for
embroidering his stories with what Mark Twain used to refer to as
"What do you want?"
SI explained its hope to find out more about Finch, specifically
about his intentions to put in an appearance at the Sydney
"You've found out about the javelins?"
After a pause, and only slightly less acidly, Plimpton said,
"Well, I have Sidd's phone number in London. I call it on
occasion. There's never any answer. But the other day I called
and it was busy."
And he said no more.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LANE STEWART/HOMER LAYNE/BEAVER HERALD-DEMOCRAT MYSTERY MAN In 1994 a local newspaper photographer snapped this shot of an unknown cow chip contestant, now thought to be Finch.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LANE STEWART THE KID Finch first caught SI's attention 15 years ago, an inscrutable, one-booted righthander with a 168-mph fastball.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LANE/STEWART MERMAID STREET STUDIOS/COURTESY INTERNATIONAL CRICKET COUNCIL CHUCKED ASIDE In a photo provided by the league, Finch's girlfriend, Palmer, appears to be consoling him after his unhappy cricket debut.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LANE STEWART DANGEROUS SKIES The unexpected arrival of a javelin on MacLeod's porch and a shot in Applegate's parlor are both now presumed to be the result of Finch's overzealous training.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LANE STEWART/JOE BERTON AIMING FOR SYDNEY? A Staffordshire man provided this image to an SI reporter--more evidence that Finch aspires to Olympian feats.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LANE STEWART/JOE BERTON
Finch was described by one awed witness as "a guy who could throw a
strawberry through a locomotive."
Darrell suspected that "everyone around the grounds thought it
would be best if Finch were not seen there again."
The reporter's assumption was that Finch had hurried from the
scene, too embarrassed to retrieve his errant shot.
"Sidd has this gift," Temple says. "He would surely wish to
utilize it, as he once did by playing baseball."