Conversation with enigma gives no clues

Commentary

April 01, 2007|By RICK MAESE

NEAR EXIT 351, I-40, TEXAS-- --April 1985 - exactly 22 years ago - in a Sports Illustrated article, author George Plimpton introduced the world to a baseball prospect like none other, a pitcher named Sidd Finch whose eccentricities were as unbelievable as his fastball, clocked by New York Mets officials at 168 mph. One week after Plimpton exposed the Mets' top-secret prodigy, Finch disappeared. Or at least he seemed to.

Perhaps he's who you really are. Do you have anything that would prove it? The man doesn't look up. He's seated across the table at a corner booth in a nondescript Cracker Barrel restaurant. He'd ordered three sides of macaroni and cheese, an iced tea with no ice and a whole lemon, which he'd told the waitress he preferred to quarter himself.

Really, the whole thing seems far-fetched. A week earlier, this man - tattered Mets cap facing backward, a hiking boot on either foot and an 18-wheeler parked outside - had been outed as the mysterious Finch by a trucker blog - FiveAxels.com - an assertion the man didn't deny, confirm or even address.

I am me," he says, reaching into the back pocket of his blue jeans and pulling out a commercial driver's license. "Hayden Whyte," the card reads, which made the blog claim even more plausible. Finch, according to Plimpton's account, had been adopted out of an English orphanage by the renowned archaeologist Francis Whyte-Finch. "Just as you are you," he adds, after a forkful of macaroni. The license indicated the man had just turned 50. His sharp blue eyes won't confirm that, but their frame is a bit more revealing, the shallow grooves in his pale skin as distinguishable as the grain on a block of wood. This man had done some living.

Lunch was half over and he'd said next to nothing. The man recounted the two decades since he supposedly walked out of the Mets' spring training camp with extremely broad strokes. On six of the seven continents, he'd driven commercial trucks - "I deliver what people need to receive" - and really, that's about it.

For years, he says he sought coffee shops and dive bars and played his French horn at open mike nights, but "the sound faded in 1996." Nowadays, he pulls into a new town and spends entire evenings at the local bowling alley. Every game is the same: two glasses of iced tea with no ice, nine strikes followed by two gutter balls in the final frame.

Obviously, perfection is a preferred goal," he says, staring out the Cracker Barrel window, where a mockingbird dances in the air, just an inch or two from the glass, "but attention is hardly a reward." As he raises his hand to tap the glass, his sleeve rides up his arm, revealing for the first time a tattoo, letters wrapped around the wrist that supposedly whipped a baseball harder than any other before or since. After prolonged inspection (and awkward silence), the ink reveals itself to spell out "bodhi," a Sanskrit word for enlightenment or illumination.

OK, let's say you're really Sidd Finch. Why would someone who's poised to change the game of baseball just walk away? A full minute of silence passes and even when he begins to speak, the man never takes his eyes off the mockingbird. "How do you get the goose out of the bottle without hurting it or breaking the glass?" he asks, reciting a well-known Zen koan. "The answer is, `There, it's out!'" No, this answer doesn't suffice, and years of living in diners and bowling alleys and on that twin-size mattress in the back of his rig tell him that he needs to come down a couple of clouds.

Looking straight ahead for the first time, he pulls the sports section out of the USA Today on the table and points to a headline about a recent steroids investigation. "The game is the game. The limitations need to be challenged but also appreciated. When there are no limits, there is no game," he says, breathing heavily, like a marathon runner who's reached the final mile. It's not clear whether he's talking about performance-enhancing drugs or about a young mystic who can hurl a ball at unearthly speeds. "Limitations," he says one final time.

Solemn to the edge of regret, he pulls $20 from his pocket, places it on one corner of the table and leaves without saying another word. An 18-wheeler pulls out of the Cracker Barrel parking lot carrying either the world's most mysterious baseball player or its craziest truck driver. Perhaps coincidence, perhaps evidence: A quarter mile down the road, a beaten Mets cap lies abandoned on the side of the highway. Under its bill, in black marker, someone had neatly printed "Namaste," another Sanskrit word, this one meaning "farewell."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

With apologies to the late Mr. Plimpton, whose original profile is archived on SI.com.

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