I don’t know how to properly write about an on-line friend of mine who passed away this week, but perhaps the best thing to do is just start. I was on Facebook earlier today, doing nothing in particular that I should have been doing, when Phillip Finch’s niece posted a link to his obituary in his hometown newspaper.
Phillip Finch, a prolific Kansas author whose work ranged from fast-paced thrillers to a riveting nonfiction account of a cave diving triumph and tragedy, died Tuesday at the home of his sister in Grand Junction, Colo., following an illness of a few months. He was 63.
In the old days, before the internet, it would have been almost impossible for me (and everyone else, for that matter) to have made acquaintance with so many of the different types of people I’ve been able to meet. Phillip Finch was that type of person. A published writer, Phil was also a big Baltimore Oriole fan. We met on-line on an Oriole mailing list-serv, a group of fans who would share out our thoughts and ideas about our favorite baseball team. At first, Oriole talk was usually for the better, given that the team in the mid-1990s was competitive, and in 1997, was only a couple of games away from moving on to face the Florida Marlins in the World Series that season. But by 1998, the bottom began to collapse under the team, and as we sit, less than two weeks before the start of Major League Baseball’s spring training, the Orioles haven’t been anywhere near the postseason in 14 years. Our little fan mailing list, so active with its 200 or so members during the salad days of 1996 and 1997, has seen its numbers dwindling, partly through the ennui of a franchise that’s become a backwater, and partly due to increase of fan-based websites, that have siphoned off so many of the list’s members since the early part of this century. We used to have a small group that would attend local Oriole games in Anaheim, for instance, but even I have to admit to missing those events these days. I haven’t given up my rooting interest in the team per se, I just decided, given family and other distractions, to spend my entertainment money on different choices.
Still, the Oriole list soldiers on, and Phil was one of those who continued to give it life even when the team showed little signs of it. Typically, he’d find interesting team-related nuggets to share even when the Orioles were in their typical state of late-season putrefaction. But I should have suspected something was wrong when the Orioles managed to spoil the Boston Red Sox’s chances at the postseason over the last two weeks of the season. Admittedly, our mailing list wasn’t saying much, but in normal times, Phil would have said something. Tonight, in fact, in reviewing my e-mail, Phil’s last post was in early September, and given what the obituary shared, that likely coincided with around the time he got ill.
But unlike so many I’ve met on-line through things like the Orioles’ mailing list, or through Facebook, I was lucky to have also met Phil in person. He was traveling out to California at the time, and I recall that he was out here doing some screenplay work. I met him for dinner at El Cholo in mid-town L.A., and made sure he was able to sample one of their famous margaritas. We talked for a couple of hours, about a myriad of things, one conversation about Mark Bowden in particular. But before that, we’d already exchanged a number of e-mails, including one in which he shared with me a copy of a story that his daughter, then a 4th grader, had written. I was teaching 4th grade at the time, and it meant a great deal to me that he was willing to share his daughter’s writing with me. Reflecting upon that time a while back, Phil wrote of his daughter, who is now at the University of Kansas:
My daughter has gone from Island of the Blue Dolphins to Critique of Pure Reason, and our favorite baseball team still sucks.
We stayed in touch through the de-evolution of what was once one of baseball’s signature franchises. But fortunately there was so much more enlightening things to discuss even as the baseball turned darker. Sharing with Phil that I liked Raymond Chandler and Joseph Wambaugh, his suggestions turned me on to the works of Michael Shaara and James Ellroy, and by extension, Walter Mosley. Phil was a writer as well as a reader. I can recall that shortly after I posted on Facebook that I had seen the film Public Enemies and planned to read the book, Phil intercepted me on-line and told me to hold off buying it, he was going to send me his copy. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, a package containing the book showed up on my doorstep, just as Phil promised. The book got inadvertently packed when we switched houses, I found it last summer and finally began to catch up where I left off, but I feel even worse, as I stare at it from my shelf, that I never had the chance to return the book to him.
Through it all, Phil always struck me as a remarkably upbeat, positive person. We conversed about a myriad of topics beyond the Orioles in e-mails and on Facebook: Bollywood, Adrienne Barbeau, Jackie Robinson, Rachael Ray, college football, true crime, Juan Marichal’s wind-up and his son, also a pitcher, which always led the two of us of course, to talk about our children–his about to enter the world outside and mine about to start. He wrote to me once:
Being a parent is such a huge responsibility, if it doesn’t make you a bit paranoid you are probably not approaching it right!…Both you and I, having started families at a relatively advanced age, are best able to appreciate the experience, I think. I remember, the day we met, thinking what a superb husband and father you would be.
I don’t deserve such praise, to be honest, but I can’t help but be touched nonetheless. If my little girl Katelyn even grows up to be anywhere close to the type of person his eldest daughter happens to be, I will consider myself fortunate. I am, in no way, the person that Phil Finch was, so I’m already operating at a disadvantage.
In the same e-mail though, he also shared:
I had some very good news recently. Between Thanksgiving and the end of January I put together a proposal for a novel… an action/adventure thriller… nothing too ambitious, as I decided to stick to what I knew I could do, but designed to be the first in a series. I picked the toughest of economic times to resuscitate a fiction career, yet amazingly enough, it sold in a hurry. It will be the No. 1 release for Pocket Books in Jan 2010, by far my broadest exposure.
However to fill that slot I had to agree to a June 1 deadline, and as of tonight I still have (mumblety-mumble) thousand words to write, and 30 days to write them in. I actually kind of like that. In a lot of ways it feels like writing my first novel, which was just as improbable a sale, and written just as quickly.
The result of that work was his final published book, Devil’s Keep. Lastly, Phil added:
Point to all this being that if you see much of me on Facebook or the OML, you’ll know that I am slacking off big time.
I hadn’t read much from him recently, so I assumed he wasn’t slacking off, just busy writing. But now we all know what was up. Still, after informing my acquaintances and friends on the Oriole mailing list upon seeing Phil’s sad news on Facebook, I thought back to the time we had had real face-time at El Cholo so many years ago. A couple of years ago, he did too, in commenting upon a photo of Katelyn’s first trip to the iconic restaurant:
Anyway I still remember the meal. Let’s do it again one of these days, only this time you have a daughter to bring!
Next time I go, I will raise my glass to him. I was the better to have the chance to cross paths with this man. Que dios en paz lo tenga…
And Phil, our favorite baseball team still sucks, on top of all that. <sigh>