It all started innocently enough. A Facebook message from my friend Jeff:
“I have a proposition to discuss, as your time allows…How would you like to throw out the first pitch at a Timber Rattlers game?”
ARE YOU FLIPPIN’ KIDDING ME?? THAT IS THE MOST DAMN-FOOL IDEA YOU HAVE EVER COME UP WITH! AND ALL THIS TIME I SWORE YOU HAD NEVER TRIED ACID…
Well…that would have been the rational, well-thought-out, sane response. If you know anything about me, though, you realize that “rational”, “well-thought-out”, and “sane” often do not make it to my table.
The backstory: As part of a ticket package Jeff had purchased over the off-season, the T-Rats had thrown in an opportunity to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at one of their home games sometime during the 2015 season. This, it turned out, was something Jeff had little inclination to take on himself; he felt it would be a bit on the tacky side to buy your own way into the privilege of throwing out a first pitch…and so he offered the opportunity to your humble correspondent.
Now, before we go any further, there is something you should know about me: I can throw the ball every bit as well as Cy Young. Mostly, of course, because Cy has been dead now for sixty years. In fact, back in my so-called prime – the early 1980s, when I would play softball two nights a week at the minimum – I was said to have the worst arm in the entire Wausau Area Softball Association…and please note, dear reader, that the person who made this observation drew no distinction between the men’s and women’s divisions. Whether that omission was by design or not, the brutal fact remained that while I could hit some truly badass line drives back in the day, and while I was actually a pretty darn good defensive catcher overall (owing mostly to the fact that the catcher position in slow-pitch requires little in the way of throwing while the ball is in play), the ugly truth of the matter is that, due to a conspicuous lack of muscle as well as mechanical glitches that would occasionally arise from God-only-knows-where, the ball would generally do pretty much what it wanted once it left my hand.
But I digress. Because, however atrocious my throwing may have been over the years, this was a chance for me to throw out the first pitch at a game. Years ago, I would have found a way to come up with an excuse, however lame, to bail out. Fortunately, things change. So…screw it…why not?
Needless to say, I was going to have to shake off the rust. This involved getting some throws in with son Dan over the couple of weeks leading up to the game. And I quickly learned that my skills had not deserted me; I could still find a random direction for the ball to fly, just as well as ever. The only difference was that sixty feet was much farther than it was years ago; I blame that on the time-space continuum. Or something like that. In any case, this was looking to be more and more of an adventure. But, as always, one that I was going to have some fun with.
And then, finally, Game Day. Donna and I got to the ballpark about quarter after 5; Dan and Tim arrived maybe fifteen minutes later, with Jeff coming in five minutes or so after that. It had previously been decided that some last-minute warmup would likely be a good idea, so Tim and I headed for a grassy area far enough away from the crowd to ensure that no innocent bystanders would be hurt in the process. Between my sessions with Dan the week before and with Tim before the game, I had discovered that my throws were coming up shorter overall than I had expected (the time-space thing, y’know), so I decided that it would be prudent to aim high. I figured that the odds of my throw sailing over anybody’s head were minimal, and if there was one thing I did not want to do, it was to bounce the ball up there – or, even worse, to plant the ball twenty feet in front of me. The hardest part for me was trying to adjust to the toll that time and work had taken on my knees and hip. Throwing a ball effectively is about more than just the arm; doing it right involves using the whole body…and I was discovering that my body was doing things in ways that were not quite the same as they were years ago.
Warmups completed, we headed into the ballpark. Before taking the field, though, there were the preliminaries. We were given a place to meet at 6:30 and were then lined up according to our position on a list – nine or ten of us, as it turned out. As we began lining up, I began to notice a couple of trends: 1) Most of the names being called out were not necessarily names given to children in the 1950s – or, for that matter, in any part of the twentieth century, and: 2) With one exception – a guy who looked to be somewhere in his mid-to-late teens – most of the people in line barely reached to the bottom of my rib cage.
Oh, shit. There is no possible way this is going to end well. In the weeks leading up to the game, I was envisioning maybe three of us out there…probably some guy in his thirties or forties who had just crushed the sales quota for his company, and maybe a young tyke representing some local Little League. And I figured that Mr. Hot-Shot Salesman and I would likely be shown up by the Little Leaguer…which would have been cool, had it played out that way. I certainly was not expecting to be sent out with a mob of little urchins who were young enough to be my (hypothetical) grandkids. Anyhow: From our meeting point, we were paraded out onto the field along the warning track. (As we were being led out there, Donna – in a rare display of smartassitude – turned to the others in our party and asked “Which one is Mike?”) While we were waiting to be led out to the mound, we were each given a ball for our pitch, along with a special baseball cap bearing the logo of the Flash (it was Superhero Night at the game). A minute or so later, I heard a woman’s voice distinctly say “hold on to your balls”. Thinking this to have been the best advice I had been given thus far in the ordeal, my hand began to reach downward – only to stop an instant later when I realized that it was the mother of the two boys immediately in front of me, conveying a very different message to her sons. And then, a moment later, I distinctly heard some heckling aimed at me from several rows behind the railing; it was my friend Jerry and his wife Laurie, out to the ballpark to take in the game…but, even more, to give me a good-natured hard time.
And then, after some introductory antics by Batman and the Flash, it was showtime. Out we went, lined up in the order we were to throw. First up: one of the urchins of the male persuasion.
What the hell?
And then, the teenager. Another strike. And then several more of the local urchinry, all either getting it in there or working the corners. But then a little girl comes to my rescue. She gets the ball maybe halfway to the plate, and I breathe a sigh of relief. If nothing else, I will not have the worst throw of the ceremony.
And then it immediately hits me: What if I actually do worse than her?? Dear God. I am going to spike the thing. I know it. After which I might as well crawl into the divot I will have created, pull the turf over the top of myself, and disappear. It is now just the twin boys in front of me. A couple more good throws. And then.
I wind up, and fire a serious brushback pitch. Chin music. Yeah…I am the meanest SOB since Bob Gibson. Pure intimidation, that’s me. Assuming, of course, that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar might be intimidated by a fifteen-mile-an-hour heater.
What? You aren’t buying into this? Okay. Rewind the tape.
The catcher calls for a pitchout. And, with an imaginary lefty up, I keep the ball up and away toward the third-base side, the easier for the guy to gun it down to third; there is a runner on second thanks to the ineptitude of one of my outfielders, and-
Okay. Time to man up. All I really wanted was 1) to get the ball to the plate on the fly, and 2) not force the catcher to have to bolt to his side to keep the ball from sailing into the dugout. Mission accomplished. It was ugly, but I got it there, high and away…and I made those eight-year-old studs look good in the process. I raise my arms in triumph, and step to the side to let the last guy get his chance to show me up as well. Once he did his thing, we all lined up to have our souvenir ball autographed by the catcher (who was actually a pitcher by the name of David Carver). As he signed the ball, he said to me “You didn’t want to spike it, right?” Yeah…he knew. My mission completed, I returned to the grandstand. On my way back to my seat, I saw this:
Epilogue: Later in the game, I scooted across the seats to catch up with Jerry and Laurie. As I was working my way across, one of the four young (twentyish) ladies at the end of the row noticed that I had a ball. Did you just catch a foul ball, she asked? No, I was out there throwing out the first pitch…and I showed her the ball with its special markings and autograph. My level of cool immediately shot up and off the young ladies’ charts.
Note to my sons: Chicks dig this. Pay attention.
(Photo credits, top to bottom: Jeff Ash; Jeff Ash; Dan Powers/Appleton Post-Crescent; Mike Gliniecki)