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Phenoms like Finch, LaLoosh wouldn’t pay for training

Of all the things Crash Davis believed in — the soul, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, that there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter, the sweet spot, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and kisses that last three days — and a few others I left out because they’d never get past the copy desk — the "Bull Durham" protagonist did not weigh in on whether he believes in Sidd Finch.

Sidd Finch was a pitching prospect the New York Mets had discovered who could throw a fastball 166 mph. Reared in an English orphanage and having briefly studied at Harvard, Finch supposedly had learned how to throw serious gas in Tibet by mastering yoga. He was portrayed as a recluse who pitched while wearing one hiking boot and was conflicted about whether to choose baseball over playing the French horn.

If Sidd Finch sounded too good to be true it was because he was. He was a figment of writer George Plimpton’s imagination. "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch" appeared in the April 1, 1985, edition of Sports Illustrated. The Museum of Hoaxes proclaimed it the No. 2 April Fool’s hoax of all time, second only to the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest of 1957 during which peasants were photographed pulling down long strands of pasta from huge trees.

And yet, I still want to believe in Sidd Finch. I want to believe there’s a kid, a guy, a shoe salesman from Dubuque, a Tibetan monk who somehow slipped through the scouting crack, who can throw a baseball harder than Bob Feller or Nolan Ryan or even Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh in the movies.

That’s what brought me out to Buck Thomas’ Four Corners Scout Day at the Bat-R-Up indoor batting cages and pitcher’s mounds in North Las Vegas on Saturday. Buck Thomas is a part-time California Angels scout and full-time hitting instructor at Bat-R-Up who opens the doors late at night so guys such as the Phillies’ Shane Victorino can stay sharp during the offseason. Thomas also helps local kids develop their baseball (and softball) skills to the point they receive college scholarships, although I think God-given talent also might have something to do with it.

"This is a chance for a lot of the scouts to see the local talent in a setting that’s controlled, where we can make an atmosphere where the scouts can have some one-on-one time with each player if they need it before the season kicks off," Thomas said in explaining the idea behind Scout Day.

Although Major League Baseball sponsors a dozen or so free baseball tryout camps — there was one at Cashman Field in June — Thomas charges $125 for the potential of one-on-one time with a scout. The players I spoke with said it was a small price to pay, although as one mom observed, perhaps after multiplying in her head $125 times 95, the number of prospects and wannabes who were on hand Saturday, "Baseball is a business. It’s not a game anymore."

If it would have helped or had I thought about it, I would have told her that the last time I checked, piano lessons weren’t free, either.

But I knew right then and there that neither I nor scouts from 22 of the 30 big league clubs would be putting a naked eye or a radar gun on the next Sidd Finch, because guys like Finch don’t seem the type who would pony up $125 for baseball lessons.

Thomas did introduce me to one of his pupils, a gangly kid from Centennial High named Mike Wagner, who said he probably has spent $2,500 at Bat-R-Up over the years but had earned a baseball scholarship to the University of San Diego, which Thomas said has a sticker price of $43,000. Even Lenny Dykstra can do that math.

Wagner, a likable kid with a smile wider than Eric Gregg’s strike zone, told me he has hit 93 mph on a radar gun and then went out and hit 91 in front of the 22 scouts. He and Sierra Vista’s Nick Kingham were the only ones to top 90 mph with their high, hard ones.

I’ll bet if they tried pitching while wearing one hiking boot they could have hit 95, easy.

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352.

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