fear strikes out
“Oh somewhere kids are crying,
And somewhere hearts are blue,
But there is great joy in Louisville.
Mighty Steve did pitch it true!”
—my brother Tim’s attempted tribute to Ernest Thayer’s 1888 classic “Casey at the Bat.”
True? I wish.
Tuesday night in Louisville I had the great fortune of throwing out the first pitch in a baseball game between the Louisville Bats and the Gwinnett Braves at Louisville Slugger Field.
This opportunity, coming on the heels of John Wall’s infamous first pitch at June 17 game between the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles, added to the pressure of this ceremonial activity. “Whatever you do, don’t John Wall it,” I was told again and again. A one-year basketball great at the University of Kentucky, Wall delivered has been dubbed the “worst first pitch of all time.”
Worst by a professional athlete, maybe. Worst of all time, doubtful.
As the stress built, I turned to my Internet friends for advice. I confessed that my inner Charlie Brown was emerging and I needed advice. I pleaded for help and people responded, many citing the John Wall incident.
“Just don’t bounce it to the plate,” wrote Johnathan Gross.
“Warm up and get it over the plate,” wrote Connie Price.
“No one will care if you don’t take the mound. Better to have a good throw from 40 feet than bouncing one,” wrote Tony Powell.
Then things turned nasty.
“If you bounce it, you do realize you’ll never hear the end of it,” offered Brad Franklin.
“Pray for rain,” countered Ava Byars Watkins.
In the tunnel under the stadium I was joined by a young boy, a Little League All-Star and four scholarship pageant winners, who unknown to me, were also throwing out the first pitch. In all, there would be seven first pitches, mine being the last.
The pageant winners, decked out in their respective sashes, claimed to lack experience in the art of throwing a baseball. Drawing from my vast knowledge gathered from years of people telling me what I was doing wrong, I parlayed this information to the pageanteers.
“Put your fingers across the seams. Be sure to aim with your opposite shoulder and then throw with your whole body, not just your arm,” I said while demonstrating the movement on the sidelines. “Do it this way. It’s the way it’s done.”
What about the mound?
“No,” I said. “You don’t need to go up on the mound. It’s better to have a good throw from 40 feet than bouncing one,” I said, echoing Powell’s advice. “Aim high and relax.”
When the time came, the youngest player threw first from 30 feet. Strike.
Now from the base of the mound, Pageant Winner No. 1 took her turn. She lined up just like I told her, turned and fired. Strike.
Pageant Winner No. 2 lined up just like I told her, turned and fired. Strike.
Pageant Winner No. 3 lined up just like I told her, turned and fired. Strike.
Pageant Winner No. 4 lined up just like I told her, turned and fired. Strike.
Now, between me and my turn at glory, stood only the 11-year-old Little Leaguer. Wouldn’t you know it? He climbed to the top of the mound. He took his position on the pitching rubber. He squared to the plate, drew back and threw a strike with a 60-mile-an-hour fastball.
As he returned to the line where I waited, he shot me a stare that could be translated as “there you go, old-timer; that’s how it’s done.”
All of my advice, my knowledge, my experience was out the window. Everything I had taught each of the pageant winners was now a distant memory. I climbed the mound (against everyone’s advice). I panicked. I drew the ball back and hurled it toward the plate without squaring up, without pointing with my opposite shoulder or any of the other things I knew were important to a proper throw. I’m not even sure my fingers were across the seams.
“Oh good grief,” is all I could muster as the ball fluttered in the general direction of the catcher. To my right, the smiles of the pageant winners were replaced with expressions of pity and sorrow. The Little Leaguer sneered.
Behind the plate, my older brother turned off his camera and returned to his seat. Down the left-field line, my friends, family and co-workers pretended not to notice.
“He John Walled it,” someone yelled.
“Give him a mulligan,” yelled another.
“It wasn’t THAT bad,” said the catcher.
“Not as bad as John Wall?” I asked.
“Not quite,” he said.
“Oh good grief.”