Lasting(s) Impression

Potential. That’s the word that eventually haunts Lastings Milledge most.

Potential has two definitions in sports: one, for a prospect, rookie or young professional like Milledge, potential is a hopeful, optimistic word. The second definition is reserved for mostly former first-round draft picks, ballplayers well into their thirties, lingering on a bench in Peoria, Syracuse or Las Vegas, hoping for one last opportunity. The latter is an ugly word, often shadowed by a question mark.

Milledge has the talent to be great but, based on his history, also has a greater risk of playing out his final years somewhere between Durham, Memphis and September on a major league bench somewhere. If Milledge isn’t careful the opportunity, the one thing that is keeping him on a major league roster in 2010 – potential – will rear its ugly head and become Mr. Hyde.

Potential is fleeting. It has a short shelf life in professional sports. How fleeting? Just how short is the life expectancy of potential? Four years ago today Milledge was considered a wunderkind. He was sprinting around the outfield in Port St. Lucie as a member of the New York Mets. He is the top prospect in the Mets’ organization, and one of the best in baseball, and Mets officials view him as an essential part of the team’s outfield for years to come wrote the New York Times.

Selected 12th overall in the 2003 June Draft by the Mets, Milledge’s future began almost immediately.

“It’s always good to start out your career on the chill, instead of being compared to David Wright, (Carlos) Delgado and guys like that,” Milledge, now a Pittsburgh Pirate, told the Bradenton Chronicle. “I was moving through the system so fast, I was on different teams so fast, that I kind of missed out on instruction.”

Fast? Milledge went from being “an essential part of the [Mets] outfield for years to come” to outcast. Met fans can hardly remember the 20-year old that wore No. 65 in his first spring games. Milledge was fresh, exciting, the future. He was running down fly balls and going from first to third on a single.

By June 2006 Milledge was wearing No. 44 and playing in the major leagues. He was 21 years old when he smashed a game-tying home run off former Met Armando Benetiz at Shea Stadium.

Then, the wheels fell off.

Milledge took the field for the 11th inning. He detoured to give Mets fans in the box seats along the right field line a series of high-fives. The act resulted in a public humiliation for then manager Willie Randolph and, in the blink of an eye, a media scrum.

The Mets eventually lost the game in 12 innings, 7-6. Milledge tumbled too, going 0-for-13 at the plate, misplaying a fly ball at Fenway Park and, finally, a ticket back to Triple-A. Milledge didn’t resurface until later that year, finding himself in the middle of more controversy in late September when a teammate taped a sign reading “Know your place, Rook” to his locker in Washington.

In 2007, Milledge broke camp with the Mets but was back in Triple-A within days. He eventually rapped his way out of New York. But the change of scenery didn’t help. He angered the Nationals by twice being late for meetings and he took casual routes to fly balls. Milledge was labeled “cocky” and “lazy.” His teammates privately said he wouldn’t succeed.

His days in Flushing may be over, but Milledge hasn’t forgotten them. “I was basically 20 years old, and maybe it was a little too much for me to handle, but being in New York really helped my career, learning about the game and what is expected of you and understanding people,” he said.

Milledge’s personal character and poor choices have collided with his baseball life since high school. In 2002, Milledge was expelled from Northside Christian High in Florida for alleged “inappropriate behavior.” But, throughout his career, managers and coaches have consistently given Milledge the benefit of the doubt, because he was always so young for his level and so remarkably gifted in so many aspects of the game suggested MLB.com.

Pittsburgh farm director Kyle Stark is taking the Extreme Makeover route with Milledge.

“I sat him down and told him our rules: wearing pants up (high stirrups), no facial hair, clean locker and how we go through each day,” he told the USA Today. “He jumped right in and took accountability with it. As he started to get stronger and started to show more discipline in different things, it started to carry over onto the field.”

For Milledge, every day in 2010 is carpe diem.

The potential tag is beginning to fade, even at the tender age of 24. Milledge has already been in professional baseball seven years, the last four between the major leagues, the disabled list and Triple-A. Since the day he signed a professional contract he has played for 17 different teams in nine leagues. Last season, Milledge batted .291 with four homers and 20 RBIs in 58 games for the Pirates.

Potential. That’s all it is — for now.

“I have a lot of expectations,” he said. “I could set up myself for a long career … The biggest difference in me is that I take the game more seriously. I don’t take the game for granted. This is probably the biggest year I’m going to have.”

“He’s got all the potential in the world,” former teammate Joel Hanrahan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He’s just got to prove it.”

There’s that word again – potential.

The Subtle Danger of Talent

January 18, 1985 Tim Leary was quietly traded by the New York Mets to the Kansas City Royals. Leary was selected out of UCLA in the first-round (second overall) by the Mets in the June 1979 Draft. Less than two years later, at age 22, Leary made his major league debut. It lasted seven batters.

Life would have been better if no one said the phrase – ever — but it was too late now. By the time Tim Leary first heard someone say it in his presence all he could do was go out and try to provide evidence to support the claims.

Leary, a UCLA graduate, overpowered hitters with a 96-mile per hour fastball, then buckled their knees with a biting curveball. In 1980, his first season of professional baseball in the New York Mets organization, he was unhitable. Leary was named Most Valuable Player of the Texas League. Honestly, that only made matters worse.

The occasional mention became an everyday occurrence. Scouts, fans, analysts were singing a chorus of praises that always ended in the refrain. Leary was going to be “the next Tom Seaver.”

Mets manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Bob Gibson watched his 22-year old prospect blow away major league veterans in the Spring of 1981. Torre told the media is was “overpowering.”

The Mets manager wasn’t alone in his praise. “You look at him pitch and know that someday he’ll be a super baseball player,” added St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog.

”I like that son of a gun on the Mets. What’s his name, Leary?” Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda told New York Times reporter Joe Durso. “He can throw the hell out of the ball.”

Torre and Gibson knew they’d have to convince GM Frank Cashen to get Leary on the 25-man roster. Cashen was staunchly conservative in his approach to promoting young, developing arms.

By the end of Spring, Leary made it difficult for Cashen to say no. The Mets GM gave in. Leary was in. He earned it. He pitched his way North. Leary would join a 1981 rookie class that included Cal Ripken Jr., Fernando Valenzuela, Tim Raines, Tony Pena and Mets Mookie Wilson and Hubie Brooks.

It was a typical cold, windy 46-degree Sunday at Wrigley Field in Chicago. It was a day filled with hope for the Mets. Hopeful that rookie Tim Leary would be all the things he was promoted to be, hopeful the 22-year old would not feel overwhelmed by the pressure, hopeful that they were witnessing the beginning of “the next Seaver.”

Leary struck out Ivan DeJesus swinging and Joe Strain looking at a called third strike. Two batters, two strikeouts and now hope was floating in the Windy City. Bill Buckner grounded out and Mets fans were confused. Was this Tim Leary or Tom Seaver?

In the second inning, after Steve Henderson lined out and Bull Durham struck out, Cubs third baseman Ken Reitz worked walked. Leary threw a wild pitch and Reitz moved to second. But Leary retired Scot Thompson on a fly ball to end the inning.

Did you see it? What … the wild pitch?

No. Leary felt “a searing pain” in his elbow as he worked to Reitz. Something was wrong, really wrong. “I felt some pain in my arm on the way north,” remembered Leary.

When the Cubs came to bat in the third inning it was Pete Falcone, not Leary pitching. Four days later he was placed on the disabled list. He wouldn’t throw a major league pitch for another 30 months.

Cashen never forgave himself – or Torre – for what happened wrote Peter Golenbeck in Amazin’.

”Since I was 8 years old, I pitched hundreds of innings and was never hurt,” remembered Leary. “Now, I was hurt. Any time you even sit in a whirlpool, you get criticized. And I was taking whirlpools twice a day for months. When I went home to Los Angeles, I’d walk the beach. I became a loner.”

The whispers about being “another Seaver” faded – fast. Injury trumps all in professional sports. Being a “head case” is a close second and Leary was branded with both. Once a player is tagged, the climb to the majors becomes Mount Everest.

“The pressure is on in New York,” former teammate Terry Leach told Peter Golenbeck, author ofAmazin’. “Some people can’t handle the attention, because they expect so much of you. Or you think they expect so much of you, so you try to do more than you’re capable of, and that’s not good. And that’s what happened to Tim Leary in New York. He was young, it’s hard to cope. You don’t know what it’s like until you play big league ball in New York. That is the big leagues.”

Leary reported to Spring Training in 1982, hopeful. He spent the winter exercising, strengthening his elbow. Leary pitched one inning against the Philadelphia Phillies and he was “roughed up.”

”Every time I threw, it hurt,” said Leary. “I couldn’t even pitch. I went back home, and didn’t do much of anything except walk the beach and worry. That was the low point.”

In June 1983 Leary visited Dr. Daniel Alkatis, a nerve specialist in New York. In minutes Alkatis diagnosed Leary with a pinched nerve. “I’d been lying around for eight months, he found it in five minutes,” he said. “I still had a long way to go, but my mind was finally free.”

Sure the modest crowd that peppered the box seats on the final day of the 1983 season was a far cry from the dreams Leary once carried on his right shoulder, but No. 38 was pitching again. The “next Seaver” comparisons were gone, maybe for good, but he was back in uniform, on the mound, in the major leagues at Shea Stadium. And that was all that mattered now.

Leary pitched nine innings and beat the Montreal Expos. It was his first victory in the big leagues.

1984 was an ironic convergence of the past and then-present. Dwight Gooden, Tim Leary and Frank Cashen arrived in Florida for Spring Training.

Gooden was wearing Leary’s 1981 shoes, Leary was “damaged goods,” a reclamation project hoping for a spot on the roster and Cashen was waxing, bordering on hypocrisy, to the media about the lesson he learned.

”We’re starting to hear Gooden used as a standard of comparison for other young pitchers,” said the Mets GM. ”The scouts are starting to say that so-and- so has a Gooden-type fastball. That’s a form of subtle pressure in a way, but Gooden doesn’t understand what subtle pressure is, while Leary did.

”Gooden is very phlegmatic. He’s not burdened with a lot of hangups. I don’t want to say that Tim Leary was emotionally immature, but he was like Cassius in Shakespeare. You know, ‘Young Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much.’ That can be dangerous.”

Behind the Mask: Jerry Grote

In 1976, Bob Myrick found out the hard way how Jerry Grote felt about losing when the Mets rookie pitcher beat his catcher in a game of Backgammon, causing Grote to explode and sending the board and its pieces across the room with a single swing of the arm.

“I just sat there staring at him – hard,” remembered Myrick. “He got up and picked up all the pieces, and we never had a cross word.”

Grote’s desire to win led to unparalleled intensity on the field. During his 12-year career in New York, teammates labeled Grote surly, irascible, testy and moody.

Then, there’s Jerry Koosman’s description:

“If you looked up red-ass the dictionary, his picture would be in there. Jerry was the guy you wanted on your side because he’d fight you tooth and nail ‘til death to win a ball game.”

Grote played with an anger and intensity that was, at times, intimidating to opponents, umpires, the media and teammates alike.

“When I came up I was scared to death of him,” said Jon Matlack, winner of the 1972 Rookie of the Year award. “If you bounced a curveball in the dirt, he’d get mad. I worried about him more than the hitter.”

“He could be trouble if you didn’t do what he said,” added former Met Craig Swan. “He wanted you to throw the pitches he called. He made it very simple. I would shake him off now and then, and he would shake his head back at me. If a guy hit a home run off of me, he wouldn’t let me hear the end of it.”

Grote had a special way of letting his pitchers know he wasn’t pleased with a pitch. “Jerry had such a great arm. He could throw with great control and handcuff you in front of your belt buckle,” remembers Koosman.

Grote would get incensed when Jim McAndrew was on the mound.

“McAndrew would never challenge hitters according to where Grote wanted the ball; so Grote kept firing it back and handcuffing him in front of the belt buckle, and we would laugh, because we knew what Grote was doing,” said Koosman.

The tactic didn’t go over so well when Koosman pitched. During a game when Koosman was struggling to find his control, Grote began firing the ball at his pitcher’s belt buckle. Koosman called Grote to the mound.

“I told him, ‘If you throw the ball back at me like that one more time I am going to break your f—ing neck,’” Koosman told Peter Golenbeck in Amazin’. “I turned around and walked back to the mound, and he never threw it back at me again. We had great respect for each other after that.”

He took his frustration out on umpires too. Retired umpire Bruce Froemming claims Grote intentionally let a fastball get by him, nearly striking Froemming in the throat. Because they had spent the three previous innings in a non-stop argument, Froemming accused Grote of intentionally moving aside in hope that the pitch would hit the umpire.

“Are you going to throw me out?” snapped Grote.

“He made no attempt to stop that pitch,” Froemming thought. The home plate umpire fumed but realized he had no grounds to toss Grote from the game.

National League umpires were well aware of Grote, and his on-field demeanor. In fact, in 1975, the league was discussing physical contact between catchers and umpires. Jerry Crawford was queried about his unique style of resting a hand between a catcher’s hip and rib cage and he said, “I ask the catcher if it bothers him, and only Jerry Grote has complained.”

“The writers never respected Grote, but they guys who played with him could barely stand him,” said Ron Swoboda. “He loved to f— with people but who didn’t like anyone to f— with him. It was a one-way street. Grote is Grote, and we would not have been as good without him behind home plate.”

“Grote had a red-ass with the media, but he didn’t care,” added Koosman. “All he cared about was what he did on the field. If you didn’t get your story from what he did out there, you either talked to him nicely or he wasn’t going to give you any more story.”

Grote did not return calls or respond to multiple email requests for an interview for this story.

This is who Jerry Grote is – and the Mets knew it from the day they traded for him for a player to be named later in October 1965.

“When we got him, I don’t think anyone else had that big of an opinion of him,” said Bing Devine. “Jerry was withdrawn and had a negative personality, but he knew how to catch a ball game and how to handle pitchers, and maybe that very thing helped him to deal with the pitching staff. He was great. I know he surpassed our expectations.”

He was exactly what the Mets needed to manage a young, extremely talented pitching staff, but he was clearly a handful to manage too.

“If he ever learns to control himself, he might become the best catcher in baseball,” former Mets manager Wes Westrum told the media during Grote’s first season in New York.

Then, in 1968, Gil Hodges arrived. After being briefed on the Mets roster, Hodges said he “did not like some of the things I heard about Jerry. He had a habit of getting into too many arguments with umpires and getting on some of the older players on the club.”

Hodges, known for his firm but fair demeanor, took Grote into his office for an attitude adjustment. The Mets manager realized the importance of Grote’s talents and how it would affect the pitching staff. Hodges made his expectations clear.

“I hesitate to imagine where the New York Mets would have been the last few years without Jerry,” Hodges told Sports illustrated in 1971. “He is invaluable to us. He is intent and intense and he fights to get everything he can.”

Grote batted .256 in his 12 seasons in New York. He is a two-time All-Star (1968 and 1974). In 1969, Grote threw out 56% of baserunners. He ranks third on the Mets all-time list for games played (1235), 11th in hits (994), 15th in doubles and total bases (1413).

He fractured his wrist after getting hit by a pitch in May 1973. The Mets recorded three shutouts the first month with Grote behind the plate, four more shutouts over the next two months (May 12-August 11) without Grote behind the plate and eight more shutouts over the final six weeks of the season with Grote managing the staff.

He caught every inning of every playoff and World Series game in 1969 and 1973. Here’s a statistic for you: In the 20 post season games between ’69 and ’73, the Mets used 45 pitchers and one catcher. Those were the only two post season appearances the Mets made during Grote’s 12 years in New York.

“One of the advantages of playing for New York is that the big crowds at Shea Stadium help you tremendously,” Grote told Sports Illustrated. “They make you want to give 115% all the time. In other places it cannot be the same for the players. Like in Houston, nobody seems to applaud unless the hands on the scoreboard start to clap. Once those hands stop, so do all the others. Real enthusiasm.”

Grote loved playing in New York, and New York loved his gritty style.

Mets Draft History

One glance at the New York Mets No. 1 draft selections reveals a history of good, bad and ugly decision-making.

The Mets first-ever draft pick was pitcher Les Rohr, the second overall pick in the 1965 draft. Rohr’s major league career was short-lived. He made his MLB debut on September 19, 1967against the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitching six innings, allowing three runs and recording his first win. Rohr made six appearances over three years before he retired after the 1969 season due to injuries. He was just 24 years old.

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Sidd Finch: The Backstory

“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.” — Myra Gelband, former Sports Illustrated editor

In an era when Hollywood was creating uniformed ballplayers walking out of cornfields and crushing majestic moon shots in to the New York City sky, the famed George Plimpton was busy crafting a fictional baseball character too: Hayden “Sidd” Finch.

He was born on April 1, 1985 by the hand (and mind) of Plimpton and, for at least a day, Finch was real. But, in reality, Sidd Finch was pure fiction. Plimpton’s intentions were clear: entertain the reader. If his intentions were to create a plausible baseball player he wouldn’t have dreamed up a 168-mile per hour fastball …

Or would he?

“If you read it carefully, some of the stuff is just ludicrous, not to mention, the speed of the ball,” said Lane Stewart, the former Sports Illustrated photographer assigned to illustrate Finch. “There are things in there you could never imagine that anyone familiar with sports could believe. Now, visually, I saw it as one shoe on, one shoe off. But there are a lot of things in there that give it away.”

The phenomenon the three young batters faced, and about whom only 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 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…”

It was just unbelievable. A ballplayer wearing an old workboot, tied above the ankle on his right foot and the nadir of his left limb completely bare. If Plimpton’s outlandish tale didn’t give it away then, clearly, Stewart’s photos would.

Or would they?

“The photo I took, one boot off, one boot on, is the best example,” said Stewart. “The contact between the feet and the surface is critical in sports. I just thought that anybody, anybody, that’s ever been involved with sports would look at that — one workboot not tied up, one boot off — and think this guy just ain’t real!

“I photographed that in so many different combinations … with uniform, with no uniform, with split uniform, with one boot off, with two boots on and totally barefoot. I fought against that selection of the picture as the opener because, I said, you’re gonna give it away in the opener. I was just dead set against it.”

Editors felt that was the way Plimpton scripted it, that’s what Sports Illustrated will publish. Besides, no one will actually believe it … Or would they?

THE BIRTH OF A PHENOM

It started with a simple meeting. In early 1985 Plimpton huddled in New York offices of Sports Illustrated with then managing editor Mark Mulvoy and articles editor Myra Gelband and created what publisher Robert Miller later described in a letter to readers as “a baseball player who had never been in the game at any level.”

Weeks later and minutes after Gelband received the first draft, Plimpton was on the phone.

“What do you think?” he asked.

Gelband read the article on the train home that evening and called Plimpton the next morning.

“Has Mark [Mulvoy] read it?” asked Plimpton.

“I’m giving it to him now,” said Gelband.

“Well, call me as soon as he reads it,” said Plimpton.

“George wants to know what we think of it,” Gelband told Mulvoy, passing off the manuscript. In the 2008 biography of Plimpton’s life “George Being George” Gelband said, “I don’t think I was even back at my desk yet when Mark called me, laughing.”

“I’m on page four,” he said.

“Keep going, it gets better,” said Gelband.

Stewart had spent more than two decades as a photographer at SI, including two “Sportsman of the Year” covers, by the time Plimpton’s outline landed on his desk.

“I was strictly a feature photographer,” he said. “A lot of my competitors used to say that I was the guy who photographed things that didn’t move. There’s a lot of truth to that. I’m not a sports fan. I am not an action photographer. I was an odd photographer for Sports Illustrated.”

It was Plimpton’s description of the fictional character Sidd Finch that lead Stewart to his friend and occasional assistant Joe Berton, a junior high school art teacher in Oak Park, Illinois.

Not only was Berton a baseball fanatic, he was a carbon copy of the fictional Finch.

“If you read Sidd Finch and you look at the pictures — it’s Joe,” said Stewart. “He (Joe) is a string bean, and what I didn’t know was, he has a really good pitching motion.”

Stewart called Berton immediately and explained he had an assignment in St. Petersburg to photograph a new Mets pitcher. His name was Sidd Finch.

“I told Joe he’s (Finch) got a 168 mile per hour fastball, they’ve got him in a tent down their working under wraps,” said Stewart. “He won’t wear a uniform, he plays the French Horn and Joe’s looking at it as a Cubs fan. Joe’s thinking about the season.”

“Lane said he’s got a great fastball. I was excited about that because the Mets and Cubs were in the same division then,” remembers Berton, a lifelong Cubs fan.

“Are you in?” asked Stewart.

Of course Berton was in. Once he had confirmation, Stewart dropped the bombshell.

“There’s only one problem, you’re gonna be him!” blurted Stewart.

That’s when a series of bizarre requests surfaced in Mr. Berton’s applied arts class at Hawthorne Junior High School in Oak Park, Illinois. One student recalls Berton started asking to borrow “strange things.” One day it was a small, black baseball glove, the next day it was a French Horn, then a Tibetan food bowl.

Berton acquired the boots and the horn from a colleague in the music department, along with a “quick lesson on how to hold it to make it look realistic,” added Berton. Andrew Boies, a seventh-grade student at Hawthorne junior high, donated the black baseball glove, only after the magazine agreed to send him an SI swimsuit calendar.

Next stop: Al Lang Field, St. Petersburg, Florida, the spring training home of the 1985 New York Mets.

JUST ANOTHER ASSIGNMENT

“It was just another assignment,” said Stewart. “It wasn’t going to be a big deal. There was nothing the photography was going to do to make you believe it. It’s just a un-be-lieve-able story. We never tried to fool anyone.”

In hindsight, Stewart was never more wrong. With all due respect to Plimpton’s story, the 13 photos that appeared in the 15-page story were more than just a magazine companion. The images were the equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire.

“To me, and Plimpton said this too, what really sold the story were Lane’s photographs,” said Berton. “That is Mel Stottlemyre. That is Lenny Dykstra. There’s Sidd. What sold it to the ballplayers is, they just looked at the pictures and said, ‘Geez, what’s with this guy?’”

“I’ve spent 59 days on pieces smaller than this,” said Stewart. “I’ve literally spent months on projects that didn’t run at all. I did a thing on Jim Thorpe where I went to nine cities in five states. This was just another assignment.”

Maybe so but Sidd Finch was more than just another Sports Illustrated story. Readers, league officials, players, fans and the media believed, even if it was for a moment or a day, they believed that Finch was real.

“The quotes were all created and that’s why I think people believed it,” said Stewart. “When you get general managers, sports editors, they get Sports Illustrated and they pick up an article like that and they start skimming down, they’re looking for the Stottlemyre quote. That’s what the professional reader, the true baseball fan, are looking for.”

Stottlemyre has been in direct charge of Finch’s pitching regimen. His own playing career ended in the spring of 1975 with a rotator-cuff injury, which makes him especially sensitive to the strain that a pitching motion can put on the arm. Although as close-lipped as the rest of the staff, Stottlemyre does admit that Finch has developed a completely revolutionary pitching style. He told SI: “I don’t understand the mechanics of it. Anyone who tries to throw the ball that way should fall flat on his back. But I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it a hundred times. It’s the most awesome thing that has ever happened in baseball.”

According to Stewart, Plimpton and Mets owner Nelson Doubleday were friends. “He (Plimpton) had carte blanche to make up quotes for everybody,” said Stewart. “He had the blessing of the owner and you can’t underestimate the ability of Plimpton being able to make up quotes.”

The Mets had issued an official team uniform to Stewart and Berton. “So I went down there with my ‘kit,’ my bag of costumes essentially and combined them with the Mets official uniform and we just set up a number of scenarios,” remembers Berton.

“The players had no idea what we were doing,” remembers Berton. “I think they just looked at us as being friends of Nelson Doubleday and don’t worry about it. But when you start playing a French Horn and start goofing around with Lenny Dykstra and Kevin Mitchell, Davey Johnson is looking down wondering, ‘What the hell is going on down there?’”

“The organization was clueless,” confessed Stewart.

The carefree attitude of the Mets public relations department only encouraged Stewart and Berton. The pair purchased rub on letters from a local hardware story in Florida and staged a shot in the Mets clubhouse. “We were able to manipulate the locker next to George Foster to make it look like Sidd Finch was right there,” said Berton.

Stewart just snapped away, taking photos of the empty locker. They later found a rooming house just blocks from the Mets complex, the site where Finch stayed in Plimpton’s tale. Remember the little old landlady who rented the boarding house to Finch in Florida? She’s real and, when asked by the magazine if they could use her name, she declined.

Again, Stewart and Berton set up and snap, snap, snap, more pictures.

Philip Stearns posed as the expert of Eastern religions. Henry W. Peterson, Finch’s fictional Harvard roommate was Jim Muuse, the son of an administrative assistant at SI. And the dormitory room at Harvard? Real. It belonged to Rob Hagebak, stepson to an SI art director.

Mel Stottlemyre was played by himself, as did Nelson Doubleday, Ronn Reynolds, Len Dykstra, John Christensen and Dave Cochrane.

As the sun rose on the shores of St. Petersburg, Stewart and Berton were setting up on the beach.

“I was looking in garbage cans because nothing was open,” remembers Berton. “We ended up finding a number of Coke cans, setting them up on the beach and they’d be lined up just like I was trying to plink off these Coke cans with a baseball. As it turned out, that’s the big photograph they used for the spread.”

“That picture (Finch on the beach) also hung outside the managing editors office for the rest of his career,” said Stewart, with a hint of pride in his voice.

‘MY GOD, WHAT HAVE I DONE?’

Monday, April 1, 1985.

Lane Stewart was shaving when the phone rang that morning. It was his wife calling from her office at Life Magazine. “The sports editor for Life Magazine just came in my office,” she said in a whisper, “and he wants to know how to reach Sidd Finch.”

“The words out of my mouth were … Oh shit!” remembers Stewart.

“The significance was that someone believed it and I never thought anyone would believe it,” Stewart said. “I was thinking, ‘My God, what have I done?’ You really don’t know what the consequences of something like this … you know? I was just a photographer. This ran for 15 pages. It was scheduled for five.”

Phones started ringing everywhere it seemed.

Peter Ueberroth, MLB commissioner from 1984-1989, received calls from two major league general managers. “When it hit the stands, they wanted to know what the hell was going on,” said Stewart, who met Ueberroth months after the story was published.

Meanwhile, blocks away in Manhattan, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was hearing the story for the first time. The New York Senator picked up the phone and called Robert L. Miller, then publisher of Sports Illustrated.

Is this true? Moynihan asked.

“Nobody told the managing editor this wasn’t important enough to tell the publisher,” said Stewart. “It just didn’t rise to that level that anyone would believe it.”

Miller was caught flat-footed and, according to Stewart, he told Senator Moynihan, “If it’s in Sports Illustrated, it must be true.”

Is it true?

His assigned roommate was Henry W. Peterson, class of 1979, now a stockbroker in New York with Dean Witter, who saw very little of Finch. “He was almost never there,” Peterson told SI. “I’d wake up morning after morning and look across at his bed, which had a woven native carpet of some sort on it—I have an idea he told me it was made of yak fur—and never had the sense it had been slept in. Maybe he slept on the floor. Actually, my assumption was that he had a girl in Somerville or something, and stayed out there. He had almost no belongings. A knapsack. A bowl he kept in the corner on the floor. A couple of wool shirts, always very clean, and maybe a pair or so of blue jeans. One pair of hiking boots. I always had the feeling that he was very bright. He had a French horn in an old case. I don’t know much about French-horn music but he played beautifully. Sometimes he’d play it in the bath. He knew any number of languages. He was so adept at them that he’d be talking in English, which he spoke in this distinctive singsong way, quite Oriental, and he’d use a phrase like “pied-à-terre” 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. For any kind of sustained conversation you had to hope he wasn’t going to use a foreign buzz word—especially out of the Eastern languages he knew, like Sanskrit—because that was the end of it as far as I was concerned.”

Does that sound legit to you? A nap sack, hiking boots, a French Horn, speaking three or four languages at a time, sleep on “yak fur” and throwing a baseball 168 miles per hour … it was pure fiction.

“It never occurred to any of us that anyone would believe it,” said Stewart, still in amazement by the reaction. “There’s been a lot of talk, at the time and since because it’s become such a phenomenon, if you weren’t alive or part of this when it happened you don’t know what a phenomenon this was.”

By that afternoon, all three national television networks – ABC, NBC and CBS – were scrambling to put together stories. “You have no idea how big this was … we just didn’t talk about people believing it,” said Stewart. “It wasn’t a subject of conversation, at any point, any time.”

“It’s interesting see who believed that story and who didn’t, who fell for it and who didn’t,” said Stewart. “I had a real theory at the time, the people that really did believe it were the professional readers.

“The people who didn’t believe it were the kids, because they read the whole thing. If you read the whole thing, you didn’t believe it. If you just went through it and picked up the quotes, who the hell thinks Sports Illustrated is going to make up quotes from, of all people, Mel Stottlemyre? Who’s gonna put words in his mouth?”

LIFE, DEATH AND REBIRTH

“They had no idea the impact … it was just a story,” Stewart said. “But as quickly as it went up, it came back down. Within 24 or 48 hours it was over. It was a hoax.”

Letters to the Editor began pouring in to Sports Illustrated:

I have concluded that April Fools’ Day will come again, but not your magazine. Cancel my subscription immediately. — NICHOLAS V. LONGO, Yonkers, N.Y.

The Curious Case Of Sidd Finch should go straight into the Practical Joke Hall of Fame—without the usual mandatory five-year waiting period. — ROBERT P. DUGAN JR., Vienna, Va.

I’ve been Orson Welles-ed by George Plimpton and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED!

Sidd Finch the phenom was dead and Sidd Finch the phenomenon was born (again). In the months after, Sidd Finch t-shirts were everywhere, the Mets held a Sidd Finch Day at the end of camp, a Sidd Finch-themed restaurant opened in Oakbrook, Illinois and every sports fan had a Sidd Finch story.

“For the generation of baseball fans that experienced this story, they come up to me and tell me their Sidd encounter and where they were when they read the magazine and how they responded,” said Berton. “Everybody remembers Sidd Finch. If I were the 12th pitcher on the Cubs, I’d have to get out an old baseball card to remind them.”

Local Chicago television stations converged on the school where Berton’s taught.

“They came out with a film crew and a radar gun and put me up in the high school gym and timed three of my pitches,” remembers Berton.

“The best we got is 68 miles per hour,” said the reporter. “What have you got to say for yourself?”

In Plimpton’s fictional tale, Finch could throw 168 miles per hour.

“You need a new radar gun, the one on that one is burned out,” said Berton.

According to an unscientific list of the Top 100 April Fools Hoaxes of All Time, MuseumofHoaxes.com lists Sidd Finch No. 2, behind the infamous “spaghetti tree” hoax by the BBC in 1957.

But, for Berton, the most rewarding thing was the relationship he developed with Plimpton. “When he’d come to Chicago we’d get together and George would always love to hear the latest Sidd encounters,” he said. “He always just called me Sidd, even he had trouble believing a fictional character he created was really there in the flesh …”

Then he pauses.

“Your glove is down by the computer …” Berton says, his voice fading on the phone line.

“Sorry,” he says. “We finally got a nice day here in Chicago so my son and I are getting ready to play catch.”

Sidd Finch is teaching his son how to pitch.

Go figure.

photos courtesy of Sports Illustrated

To read George Plimpton’s story “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” visit the Sports Illustratedarchives … click here

Like Snowflakes

The Mets left New York just in time. As snow pounded the northeast, players, personnel and media settled into their respective villas in sunny Florida. Then, without warning, on Day One, snowflakes started dancing in the air at the Post St. Lucie complex.

Dave Racaniello, the Mets bullpen coach, was catching R.A. Dickey when it happened. The small white spheres floated gently through the air like a snowflake in the wind, eventually landing in Racaniello’s catcher’s mitt. According to reports, he just “laughed” and kept right on practicing. Racaniello remembers the last time he saw a snowflake in Spring Training. It was 10 years ago and he was catching Dennis Springer. Racaniello probably laughed on that occasion too, he just can’t recall how he caught a snowflake or – as it’s called in baseball circles – a knuckleball.

The knuckleball flutters and floats, dances and darts and, like snowfall in Florida, pure knuckleball pitchers are rare. The fraternity is modest, yet well-known. Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield, Wilbur Wood and Charlie Hough mastered the art and know the psychological power the knuckleball possesses. Yet, the knuckles are not involved; the fingertips lie at the heart of the offense.

The one thing more entertaining then watching a knuckleball float through the air are the ways in which batters describe the experience. There is reverence and rage in their collective voices. There is a fear and frustration in their eyes. There is a desperation and determination in their body language.

“I’d rather have my leg cut off than do that all day,” said ESPN analyst John Kruk.

Former Met Richie Hebner said, “Hitting (Phil) Niekro’s knuckleball is like eating soup with a fork,” while late Bobby Murcer described hitting Niekro’s knuckleball “… is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.” Former Mets broadcaster Tim McCarver said trying to hit the knuckleball was “like trying to catch a butterfly with a pair of tweezers.”

“I work for three weeks to get my swing down pat and Phil (Niekro) messes it up in one night,” said Pete Rose. “Trying to hit that thing is a miserable way to make a living.”

“Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor’s mailbox,” said Hall of Famer Willie Stargell.

And those are just the batters.

New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey delivers his signature pitch, with its unusual grip, against the Arizona Diamondbacks on May 6. He’s the only knuckleballer in the major leagues, and the pitch has earned him a 12-1 record so far this season.

Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who gladly handed the responsibility of catching Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball permanently over to Doug Mirabelli, added another perspective. “Catching the knuckleball, it’s like trying to catch a fly with a chopstick.”

“Like some cult religion that barely survives, there has always been at least one but rarely more than five or six devotees throwing the knuckleball in the big leagues,” said former major league umpire Ron Luciano. “Not only can’t pitchers control it, hitters can’t hit it, catchers can’t catch it, coaches can’t coach it, and most pitchers can’t learn it. It’s the perfect pitch.”

Eating soup with a fork or Jell-o with chopsticks? Catching butterflies with tweezers or a fly with chopsticks? The knuckleball plays head games with hitters. Dodger broadcaster and former major leaguer Rick Monday once told Niekro, “When I swing, don’t laugh.” Monday later described watching the knuckleball “giggle as it goes by.”

Psych.

The mysterious knuckleball lives in fame and infamy throughout baseball history.

Dickey, 35, was invited to New York Mets camp as a non-roster player. His dream was to be a major league pitcher, but this was not the script. For a long time, this was not the reality. At the University of Tennessee Dickey was a flame-throwing right handed All-American pitcher; a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. He had just been drafted by the Texas Rangers and was days away from signing a professional contract, until a Rangers team doctor looked at his photo on the cover of Baseball America.

“My right arm was bent kind of funny and it set off an alarm in their heads,” said Dickey, on NPR’s All Things Considered radio show in 2008. When he arrived in Texas days later to complete his physical, sign his contract and throw out the first pitch at a Rangers game Dickey was tested extensively by team doctors.

“I got there and the general manager pulled me in the office, post-physical and said we’re taking that (contract offer) off the table,” remembered Dickey. “I had never been hurt a day in my life. So I never missed a game, never missed a bullpen or practice.”

Dickey met Dr. James Andrews and took an MRI. The good doctor could not find an ulnar collateral ligament in Dickey’s right elbow. “The Tommy John ligament that everybody has replaced, I didn’t have one at all,” Dickey told NPR. “He really couldn’t explain it.”

“You kind of feel like the leper of the colony, a circus act,” said Dickey.

The Rangers offer went from $810,000 to $75,000. Take it or leave it. “Imagine winning the lottery and then losing the ticket,” said Dickey. He accepted the deal.

Dickey tried to keep throwing heat and win games in the minor leagues. He failed. Nine years after signing his first major league contract in Texas, Dickey realized that the only way to keep his career alive was to perfect the knuckleball. To his benefit, knuckleball master Charlie Hough was coaching in Texas.

Dickey and Hough refined the pitch in bullpen sessions. Dickey won a spot in the Rangers starting rotation during Spring Training 2006 and, on April 6, he launched his first knuckleball in the majors. Six home runs and a modern era baseball record later he was shipped back to Triple-A.

“It can be a very painful pitch to throw,” said Dickey, “and I don’t mean physically but I just mean visually – how you throw up – you can throw up some big numbers.”

Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen stood, arms crossed across his chest, and watched Dickey release one knuckleball after another. The first pitch looks the same as the last, traveling between 74 and 77 miles an hour.

“When he has a good one working, it’s as good as any in the game,” Warthen told Mets.com. “He’s had good teachers — Hough, Niekro and Wakefield — and he knows his trade.”

Warthen knows what Dickey is capable of. He witnessed the power of the knuckleball in June 2008 when Dickey, then a Seattle Mariner, tossed seven shutout innings in an 11-0 victory over the Mets. Before that start, Dickey admitted to “losing it a little bit.” He had lost confidence in his knuckleball and decided to send a video to Wakefield. Dickey called Wakefield prior to the game to get his feedback. The core of the advice was to change speeds more often.

“When I sink into the fact that I’m a knuckleballer now — not a conventional [pitcher] — it frees me up to be me,” Dickey says now. “Because of that, I can really compete at a high level with it.”

Dickey floats another snowflake to Racaniello and smiles as the baseball dances and darts away at the last second. No ulnar ligament, no problem. No fastball, no problem. R.A. Dickey makes the Mets 25-man roster? Yeah, right. That’s about as believable as snow in Florida