CHUCKIN'

Six years ago California Angel pitcher Chuck Finley was planting trees and tilling soil in Louisiana. Now he's the best lefthanded pitcher in baseball. And—get this—he actually appreciates how lucky he is
June 30, 1991

Just to the right of his left arm stands the rest of Chuck Finley, keeping busy. The left arm earns the paychecks, but the right arm endorses them. The left foot placekicks footballs, and the right foot punts them. The left hand serves tennis balls, and the right hand volleys them. While both hands choke a steering wheel, one eye watches the road and the other eye watches the rear-view mirror as Finley tries, like a TV gumshoe, to shake the women, both "weird" and "scary," who follow him home from the ballpark and perform stripteases in his driveway.

Just to the right of his left arm stands the rest of Chuck Finley, keeping out of the way, looking on from the side, an observer of all things—weird and scary but mostly wonderful—that the left arm has wrought. "I still walk around with my eyes wide open," says Finley, the best lefthanded pitcher in baseball. "I've barely blinked since I've been here."

He came here, to the Left Coast and the California Angels, from just left of Monroe, La., from a road-map smudge called West Monroe. He has since seen the world, met a president, been besieged by frenzied females, made a fortune, watched his life and New York City flash by from the backseat of a cab and introduced his dad to Reggie Jackson. Who wouldn't like all that? "All because of the game," says Finley, the last major leaguer on record to fully appreciate his special place in the universe.

Five dizzying seasons in the sun appear at first to have transformed Finley, 6'6" and stubble-faced, into some kind of Southern California superhero: half man, half tan, his blond hair long enough to obscure the already obscure name stitched to the back of his uniform. "But I tell you what," says his father, Big Chuck, back home in West Monroe. "The boy hasn't changed one eye-ota since he left here."

With one exception. Six years removed from planting trees and tilling soil for his family's nursery and landscaping enterprises, Finley, 28, has silently become an ace—but not of spades. Looking for baseball's best left arm? You got the right one, baby. "I'm not into ranking players," says Angel manager Doug Rader. "That's your job. But...."

But last season, Finley's second consecutive as an All-Star, he went 18-9 for a team that finished 23 games out of first place in the American League West. He failed to win 20 only because California scored a total of three runs in his final three starts. His 2.40 ERA was second only to that of Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox among American League pitchers, and the $2.5 million salary Finley socked away for all this was no sorry chunk of change, either. Even if it did mean, as Finley says, "A lot of guys calling to sell me in-surance."

The year before last, in only his second season as a starter, Finley finished 16-9 and had a 2.57 ERA, second lowest in the league, behind that of the Kansas City Royals' Bret Saberhagen. On May 26, 1989, he took a no-hitter at Fenway Park into the eighth inning, when Boston's Jody Reed singled with two outs. Said Reed after the one-hit shutout, "You've really got to take your hat off to that Steve Finley."

The best lefthander in baseball still takes his compliments lefthanded. In something of a watershed reversal, last month CNN Headline Sports misidentified Houston Astro outfielder Steve Finley, who was hitting .288 as of Sunday, as Chuck, who was 10-3 with a 3.79 ERA. "People ask me all the time if I'm kin to him or [former A's owner] Charlie Finley," says Chuck. "We don't even look alike."

That was definitely Chuck on the highlight reels last Thursday night in Detroit, where he was attempting to become the second American League pitcher (the Minnesota Twins' Scott Erickson was the first) to win 11 games. After California second baseman Luis Sojo was skulled by a pitch from Tiger starter Dan Gakelar in the top of the fourth inning, Finley dutifully drilled Detroit catcher Mickey Tettleton on the thigh with his first pitch in the bottom of the fourth. Both benches convened on the field, and Finley was tossed.

In West Monroe on Friday morning, Sue Finley had a message for her husband to relay to their son. "If you talk to Chuck today," she told Big Chuck as she left for work at the family's tree farm, "I want you to tell him three things. One: Get a haircut. Two: Shave. And three: Stop hittin' people! And you tell him in that order."

When Sue and Big Chuck aren't talking to their only son, they are faxing letters to his road hotel. Theirs has to be the only house in the peach and cotton country surrounding West Monroe that is equipped with both a fax machine and a satellite dish. Chuck, in turn, admits to faxing "little love letters" to his girlfriend, actress Tawny Kitaen, back in Newport Beach, Calif. More often, though, he works the hotel phones like a campaign volunteer.

"I call my mom all the time," he says. "I'll say, 'I met so-and-so today.' These people just pop up everywhere. I met President Reagan at the [1989] All-Star Game. I'd never get to see President Reagan up close if I wasn't playing baseball. I told my mom the other day that I talked to...who was it? Someone she sees on TV a lot and really enjoys."

Johnny Carson?

"No," continues Finley. "Oh, yeah. She was saying, 'Chris Berman is doing your game tonight—he docs a good job.' I said, 'Yeah, I was talking to him the other night.' And she's like, 'Whaaat? Nobody talks to these guys.' She thinks you see them on TV, but they don't have friends. And I tell her, 'Mom, these are ordinary people.' "

The same cannot be said about Big Chuck and Sue, northern Louisiana natives who are, by all accounts, extraordinary people. Their only son, says Angel pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, is "very solid mentally. And that comes from his family background. He has very strong parents who did a great job raising him."

St. Louis Cardinals manager Joe Torre, who was an Angel broadcaster from 1985 to '90, still keeps in touch with Big Chuck, who hopes to take Torre up on his offer to be his guest at Busch Stadium sometime this summer. Pat Patterson, who coached Chuck in 1981, Finley's one and only season at Louisiana Tech, says, "Chuck's daddy is the reason Chuck's in the big leagues. Chuck came to me [after his freshman year] and told me he was leaving school. And Big Chuck told me, 'He can quit, but if he does, I'm fixin' to put his butt to work daylight to dark six days a week.' "

The boy nevertheless dropped out of the only college that had recruited him. Finley was 6'3" in high school and randomly ambidextrous. But, according to his father, "he didn't weigh more than a hunnert 'n' thirty pounds." He was so skinny that West Monroe High football coach Robert Payne, while altruistically cutting the tight-end hopeful, told him, "Son, you got plenty of spunk but damn poor judgment." Big Chuck still chuckles at that line.

As a college freshman Finley was a pitcher with plenty of smoke but damn poor control, squeezing 33 walks, eight wild pitches and a balk into the 26.2 innings he threw at Tech, 30 miles from West Monroe. Tired of school and baseball, Chuck told Big Chuck he was dropping out. "I think it broke Dad's heart," says Chuck. "He said, 'You're walking away from free school? You're walking away from baseball?' It was hard for him to swallow that I just wasn't happy, that I just wanted to go to work."

Big Chuck obliged with a 10-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week, $4.75-an-hour job at his 200-acre nursery, which was founded by Sue's father and has since been sold, save for the tree farm, by the Finleys. For a year Chuck planted trees and laid down lawns—he stared with awe and humility the first time he saw the immaculate sod at Anaheim Stadium—before he quietly enrolled at Northeast Louisiana State, nine miles away in Monroe. He missed baseball. After attending class for a year without playing, he walked on to the team in 1984 and ran up a thoroughly unremarkable 6-7 record in his junior and senior years.

Six years later, and 90 minutes after an Angels-Red Sox game, Finley sat in an easy chair in the visitors' clubhouse in Boston and wondered aloud: What, besides sitting in an easy chair in the visitors' clubhouse in Boston, could be better than what he had had back then? "I was in my hometown," he was saying of those days at Northeast. "I was really happy. I was around all my buddies. I always thought the biggest adjustment for me if I was drafted would be leaving home."

When the Angels drafted Finley in 1985, they did so on his left wing and a prayer. His fastball was by then being clocked at ninetysomething, but the radar gun, like a skeet rifle, never knew where its target was going to fly. Finley was so unsure of himself that his mother and father had to sit him down in the backyard and urge him to at least try Salem, Ore., and the minor leagues. "You don't have to stay around here," Sue said. "See another part of the country while you can, while you're young."

That scene was like something out of a hokey Broadway musical, one that should have closed out of town. Instead, Finley developed a curveball and a 220-pound body, spent approximately 17 minutes in the minor leagues (41 innings, to be exact) and was called off a bus in Class A Quad City, Iowa, where he was told to catch a plane to join the Angels that night in New York City. Twice in their phone conversation, Mike Port, the California general manager at the time, had to tell Finley that he was, indeed, Mike Port, and that he was, in fact, very serious.

Before the Angels drafted him, Finley had been as far away from home as Texas. Now, suddenly, he found himself in the asylum that is New York's La Guardia Airport. With a scrap of paper in his pocket on which was scrawled the address of the Angels' Manhattan hotel, he climbed into a taxi. "We don't have cabs like that at home," Finley says today. "I barely got my door shut, and the guy was two minutes from the hotel. He didn't have two words for me the whole way, either. I just looked at my piece of paper and said, 'Forty-second Street, the Hyatt.' Phooom! I'll never forget the sound of that cab squeaking. I was holding on to both door handles, looking out the window, thinking I might have bitten off more than I could chew here."

Scared to leave the Hyatt for anyplace but Yankee Stadium, Finley was equally scared to stay: Two pieces of room service chicken, he was mortified to discover, set him back $30. Four nights later—in the blink of an eye, were he blinking—Finley was on the opposite side of the continent, making his major league debut, in relief at Anaheim Stadium. There he was, walking the long walk from the bullpen across that cool checkerboard lawn he so admired, preparing to mop up against the Tigers.

"I got to the mound and I couldn't believe how bright it was," whispers Finley, as if across a campfire. "A night game in A ball, you turn on the porch lights. I couldn't believe how close [catcher] Bob Boone looked to me. I said, 'God, I know I can throw the ball right through him.' " Until he threw his first pitch, Finley was genuinely concerned that he would shatter Boone's hand.

Instead, that was merely the beginning of the 57 mostly mundane games in which he would appear in relief over two seasons, Dust-Vac-ing the remains of games in which California was being blown out. (In those 57 appearances the Angels were a cool 7-50). But all the while, Finley was learning to throw the forkball that would make him a devastating starter. "He was learning to pitch while he was in the major leagues," says Lachemann. "That is extremely difficult to do."

He was also learning other lessons in the big leagues. For instance, Finley should have listened to the teammates who told him three years ago to consider living in a neighborhood protected by a guard in a gatehouse. He didn't, and now women regularly knock on his door in the night, begging to come in, begging him to come out, divesting themselves of their clothes on his doorstep.

He was learning gratitude, too. Last November, Finley traveled with a team of major league All-Stars to Japan, a hemisphere away from the backyard he had been reluctant to leave only five years earlier. To the parents who gave him this world, he had already given a satellite dish that brings his world to them.

He was, in short, learning. The letters Finley has faxed home of late have given his father pause. Maybe his son has changed one eye-ota, after all. "He's got to usin' big words," says Big Chuck. "Crazy words. I gotta go to the dictionary sometimes to see what he's talkin' about. I can tell by those words that he's been somewhere."

He's been everywhere. "If I wasn't playing baseball, I wouldn't be traveling like this," said Finley before the Angels fled Boston for Milwaukee. "I wouldn't be seeing the things I see or meeting the people I meet. If you told me when I was 15 I'd be doing this good or making this amount of money, I'd have said, 'Right—that doesn't happen to guys from small towns.' In fact, that's exactly who it happens to."

That's another thing Finley has learned while keeping his eyes wide open: that countless kids make it from places like La. to places like L.A., performing beneath lights that are surprisingly bright. Uncommon is the kid who can remain in the light unblinded, unblinking.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAEven after winning 44 games in the past 2½ seasons, Finley remains one of baseball's better-kept secrets PHOTOJOHN CHIASSONSue and Big Chuck monitor their son's distant exploits with the satellite dish he gave them. TWO PHOTOSV.J. LOVEROTo his corps of admirers—no, not all of them are women—Finley is cool in his Angel cap and, by gum, in less formal headgear as well. PHOTOV.J. LOVEROFinley has adapted nicely to some trappings of success—like a spin in his boat with Kitaen.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)