I took the mound for the Las Vegas 51s one hot Summer day in 2014. I stared into the catchers eyes, and shook out my 53-year-old throwing arm. As I rubbed the brand-new ball to give myself a better grip, I thought back to a similarly hot Summer day in 1973…
I was the Little League 1st Baseman for the Mets in Munster, Indiana’s, A-league. We had a strong team. Years of playing together had turned us into a well-oiled, run-scoring machine full of 12-year-olds. I batted third, and was wrapping up an awesome season at the plate. I was a solid hitter who batted .440, and only struck out once. Gary Milliken batted behind me in the lineup, and was such a potent hitter our opponents didn’t dare walk me. They HAD to pitch to me. Gary and I racked up a LOT of home runs that season.
In the first inning, I hit the first pitch over the right field fence. (I hit right-handed, and tended to swing a little behind the ball.) My second time at bat…BOOM…a line drive over the same spot on the fence. Two consecutive pitches, two home runs. It doesn’t get any better than that in July in the Midwest. Our coach sensibly took me out of the game at that point. He didn’t want to spoil a perfect day, though my pre-teen ego told me I could DEFINITELY hit a third.
After that season, music and girls took hold of my interest, and I moved away from the game I loved.
Fast forward to 2014. I was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Las Vegas 51s game. The 51s are the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Mets. They play in the Pacific Coast league, and are managed by Wally Backman, former 2nd Baseman for the Mets. Their Pitching Coach is Cy Young Award-winner, World Series MVP, Sweet Music himself, Frank Viola. In front of these two legends, I was invited to take the mound.
I was screwed.
I never had a great arm. Not even a very good one. I could hit, and was a competent fielder, but my arm never caught up with the rest of my skill set. That’s why I played 1st Base, not a lot of throwing. Nonetheless, the sport a man plays in his youth is the sport he always believes he can still play well, given the right opportunity. I was being given the right opportunity, in the right sport, but in the wrong spot on the field. At the plate, I might be able to pull it off, as long as the pitcher threw…not too fast…at my preferred spot of slightly less than shoulder high on the outside edge of the plate. But pitching? Not a chance. No way.
It was a chance to see if I still had a little gas left in the tank. So I said, “Yes. I would LOVE to throw out the first pitch…but are you sure there’s no ceremonial first hit?” They assured me there was not, so I mentally prepared myself to either validate, or completely destroy, my sense of self as a man. As an AMERICAN man participating in the National Pastime.
I stepped out of the dugout into the blazing hot Nevada sun. The temperature was well over 110 degrees on a Sunday afternoon. The place was virtually empty. No Nevada resident in their right mind goes to the ballpark on a day like that. Good! While there would be no crowd to witness potential triumph, there would also be none to witness abject failure. If I Baba Booeyed* the pitch, my humiliation would be witnessed only by Coach Backman, Coach Viola, and a handful of players, which was bad enough. (*Google “Baba Booey First Pitch Blunder” and watch the video. Gary Dell’Abate…Howard Stern’s Producer…threw out the first pitch at a Mets game. It was so wild and wide, it prompted the sportscaster to blurt out “Jesus Christ! He just threw the ball and hit the umpire!”)
There was a bright spot on the field in Las Vegas. An 11-year-old girl who was raising money for a charity was also going to throw a pitch. Perfect! There was no WAY I could could follow an 11-year-old and not throw at least a little better. She walked over onto the grass in front of the mound…the traditional spot…and went into her adorable little pitcher’s stretch. She then shook her head, and stepped up ON THE FRIGGIN’ MOUND! The tiny crowd roared it’s approval.
Wait….she couldn’t do that. *I* couldn’t do that! There was no way I could pull it off from up there. But I had to because I couldn’t wuss out after a little girl threw from the rubber. It didn’t matter whether she got it over the plate or not. The fact that she was willing to try it from there meant I HAD to try. Crap.
She bounced in a two-hopper.
I turned to Frank Viola and said, “Coach, how do I NOT screw this up, now that I have to throw from the mound?”
Mr. I-Held-The-Cardinals-To-Just-Two-Runs-In-The-Seventh-Game-Of-The-World-Series grinned at me and said, “Try not to think about it. HA! TOO LATE!”
“Just go up there and have fun. That’s what we tell the kids,” he said, gesturing toward the players who were starting to warm up.
OK. Have fun. Got it. I stepped out onto the field, and it truly was a dream. The base path was some kind of finely-ground gravel, the likes of which I have never seen, and the grass….oh, the grass…it was soooo green and perfect it made me tear up, just a little. It truly was a cathedral of everything good and right about the USA.
And I was about to defile it.
Here’s what Major League Baseball says, “The distance between the pitcher’s plate and home base, (the rear point of home plate,) shall be 60 feet, 6 inches.” That is a lie. It’s at least 100 yards. At least.
Further, MLB tells us, “The top of the rubber on the pitcher’s mound is to be no higher than ten inches (25.4 cm) above home plate.” BS. It’s at least a mile.
I stepped up onto the mound, and looked across the gulf at my catcher, who was only about 11 inches tall at that distance. “This looks like a LOT farther than 60 feet from up here,” I said.
“YEP!” he grinned, and settled into his crouch.
He signaled for the old Number One. The heater, the fastball, the smoke. Riiiiiight. I nodded, and rocked back in an effort to make some kind of approximation of a pitcher’s motion. It felt pretty good! I pointed my glove hand at the catcher’s mitt as I went into a little kick. (A kick. I had a little kick!)
I let it fly.
To be perfectly honest, if my 12-year-old self had been batting, he would have crushed it 300 feet, at least. But I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a strike. A strike! A little gas left in the tank in a real ballpark from which real players get called up to The Show.
One last perfect Summer day.