Guanella Brothers pitching legend passes

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Petaluma lost a tie to its sports past on New Year’s Eve with the passing of K.G. Fincher.

Fincher is not well known by most of today’s Petaluma sports fans, but 40 years ago, he was known throughout the country as one of the best at what he did. What he did was pitch a softball underhand.

His ties to Petaluma are a bit tangled. He never lived in Petaluma and was living in Phoenix when he passed away at age 83, but he was very much a part of Petaluma’s sports history. A member of the International Softball Congress Hall of Fame, he was a huge part of one of Sonoma County’s most legendary teams, the Guanella Brothers Floorman from Santa Rosa that won the 1974 national fast pitch softball championship.

Although the Floormen were based in Santa Rosa and played their home games at Howarth Park in Santa Rosa, it could be argued that the heart of the team was from Petaluma.

Among the Petalumans who helped make Guanella a national champion and a local legend were Amateur Softball Association Hall of Famer Ray Allena, catcher Rich Garner, Frank Topolewski and brother John Topolewski, Bill Johnson and Mike Thomas. Through the years there were many more who added to the team’s reputation.

Allena, acknowledged as one of the best baseball players ever at Petaluma High School, and a softball Hall of Famer in his own right, does not want the passing of his friend and teammate to go unnoticed.

“Without K.G. we couldn’t have pulled off the national championship,” Allena said. “When he came along, we became unbeatable.”

And they were very nearly unbeatable in that amazing 1974 season, winning 107 games and losing just 10 behind the pitching of Rich Balswick, Fincher and Del Howard.

Fincher was 49-6 that season with an ERA of 0.58. Of Guanella Brothers’ five games in the national tournament, he won three and saved the fourth in a championship game that has become almost mythical among those who recall the glory years of fast pitch softball.

Balswick started the championship game against another super team, Home Savings of Auroa, Illinois. In the sixth inning, with Guanella leading, 2-0, he got into trouble, putting two runners on base with no outs.

Enter Fincher. He proceeded to throw two wild pitches, sending a run home and putting the tying run at third base. No problem. He struck out the side and was untouchable the rest of the way.

After winning the national championship, Guanella went on a barnstorming tour, playing teams from throughout the midwest and enhancing its growing national reputation.

“That was a lot of fun,” Allena recalled. “We would play before packed crowds. It was just like Field of Dreams. The ball parks would be in the middle of a field. People would show up early just to watch us take infield.”

While the majority of the Guanella Brothers team was from Sonoma County, with many coming from Petaluma, Fincher, like most top-notch pitchers of the time, was something of a hired gun. He was paid, not in money, but in victories and competition. He pitched for the best teams against the best teams.

“Nobody got paid,” Allena said. “The only people who got anything were the pitchers, and all they got was gas money and maybe offered a job.”

Although many of the Guanella players were outstanding baseball players, none really had a chance at playing pro ball.

“It was a different time,” Allena recalled. “There wasn’t much chance of getting drafted and there wasn’t a lot of money like there is today.

“Softball was our sport. It was our way of staying in athletics.”

Of course, there was also a lot of travel involved. Guanella played in a regular Santa Rosa league during the week and traveled to tournaments on the weekend. Their families traveled with them.

“We never unpacked our suitcases,” Allena recalled. “We just changed the clothes and were ready to go the next weekend.”

Fincher drove north from San Jose for games and even for some practices with the Floormen.

Garner, who caught Fincher and the other great Guanella pitchers, said, although the pitcher’s rise ball made him almost impossible to hit, he was a pleasure to catch.

“He wasn’t hard to catch at all,” he said. “I just put the glove down and the ball was there.”

For more than two decades, Guanella Brothers provided fun, entertainment, success and prestige to Northern California sports, winning a second national championship in 1991 and winning the first World Games championship in 1981.

But it was the 1974 championship team that really began the legend and remains one of the area’s all-time great sports stories.

“Had we not had that ’74 season, we wouldn’t have been so well known,” said Garner. “That was what put Santa Rosa on the softball map.”

Allena was close friends with Fincher and remains in awe of both the pitcher and the man.

“Over the years I’ve often been asked, ‘Who is the best softball pitcher I’ve ever seen?’ It’s a tough question to answer because there were so many good ones,” he wrote in a tribute to his friend. “But this much I can say — in 1974 K.G. Fincher was the best pitcher on the planet.

“But the most impressive thing about K.G. was how he treated his teammates. Never did he complain to an umpire for a bad call. He never gave up even though his fingers were bleeding from throwing his rise balls. I wanted to be like him. He was liked and respected by everyone in softball circles.

“He was the perfect teammate.”

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