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[Editor's Note: Paul Devlin is a former New Canaan resident and all-state baseball player. He hit a home run off Nuke Laloosh in the movie "Bull Durham." In today's column, Devlin re-lives the anxiety and stress that come with tossing the first pitch.]
Baseball's Opening Day is truly a special time for many people. It marks a rebirth of the game and a renewal of hopes and expectations. But for me, personally, Opening Day is like the movie "Groundhog Day." It’s a day I re-live one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. Over and over and over again.
The baseball season doesn't officially start until the ceremonial first pitch is thrown. It's a big deal for the game, and after fans settle into their seats, two questions are asked.
- Who is throwing out the first pitch?
- Will they bounce it?
Over the years, we've seen some pretty famous people toss some absolutely brutal first pitches. In 2007, Mark Mallory, the mayor of Cincinnati, threw a first pitch that Time Magazine ranked as the worst in baseball history. Eric Davis, a former Reds great who was supposed to catch the pitch, was shown on television with an incredulous look on his face while mouthing the words, "What the @!*#?"
Remember Carl Lewis in Seattle? His pitch went no more than 15 feet, making his performance far worse than his rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at a Nets game in 1993. You know, the one where he stopped in the middle of it and said, "Uh-oh."
My "Uh-oh" moment came in the summer of 2001. I was an anchor at Fox Sports Net in Atlanta and was asked to throw out the first pitch before a Braves-Diamondbacks game. Randy Johnson was facing Tom Glavine, a pair of future Hall of Famers on the mound, and about 30,000 people in the seats.
My first thought was, "Forget that, I don't want any part of it." I had thrown out a pitch at a minor league game in Binghamton, and remembered how with just a few thousand people in attendance, it was a nerve-racking experience.
Now I was being asked to do it at a major league game in front of 30,000 people? Bartender! Make it a double. I reluctantly agreed to do it and obsessed about the pitch: Should I throw it hard, or just lob it? Whatever you do, just don't bounce it. I must've said that about 25,000 times. My neighbor thought I was nuts when he saw me throwing a ball repeatedly against the underground parking wall on the day of the game.
I had done this a trillion times in my life. I was decent player who earned a scholarship to UNC and played in the Boston Red Sox organization. I admit that I suffered from "Mackey Sasser disease" during the final two weeks of my "illustrious" career. (The illustrious part is poking fun at myself for those scoring at home.) The former catcher had a mental block when it came to throwing the ball back to the pitcher and often said that he couldn't feel the baseball when he threw it.
I arrived at Turner Field about 90 minutes before the game. It was a typical, blazing hot and humid summer night in Atlanta. BJ Surhoff, who was a friend and college teammate at UNC, was playing for the Braves, and said he'd catch my pitch. His advice to me: Just don’t bounce it.
My name blared out over the public address system and was posted on the scoreboard as I made my way to the mound. I was smiling and happy until I toed the rubber and saw 30,000 people staring back at me. It was a surreal moment. I felt naked on the mound like Nuke LaLoosh in that dream sequence in 'Bull Durham.' The stands appeared to be closing in on me, and when I glanced into the Dbacks’ dugout, Randy Johnson was staring at me with a, ‘Come on, man, we're waiting on you,’ look on his face. Toilet paper, please.
There was no backing out. I had to throw the first pitch. Sixty feet, six inches. Just don’t bounce it. The Braves PR team offered me a brand new, shiny baseball to throw. Throughout the game these are known as pearls because they are so white and pristine. I knew it would be slick, and if my "Mackey Sasser disease" suddenly reappeared, I wanted to have a ball I could control. I brought the one I had been throwing against the wall, which now had so many scuff marks, it looked like it had been run over by a lawn mower.
I smiled, took a deep breath, and threw the pitch toward the plate. Just don’t bounce it. I knew when I made a primal grunting noise after I released the ball, I could be in trouble. It looked good as it seemed to sail towards the plate in slow motion. 'Please, get there', I said to myself. But at the last second, it darted down. Fifty-nine feet, 10 inches.
Surhoff couldn't make the catch. I had bounced it. Unfortunately, for the cameraman who was kneeling behind Surhoff, the family jewels were not protected. He dropped his $100,000 piece of equipment and went down in a heap. Surhoff, who had quite a temper back in the day, got up and started yelling at me, "What the heck was that?! What did you do that for!" I yelled back that he should have made the catch.
We almost came to blows right there in the middle of Turner Field. I wondered what it looked like to the fans, not knowing that we were friends and former teammates. As is custom, Surhoff got the ball and presented it to me. As if I wanted to keep it as a reminder of one of my life’s most embarrassing moments. He said, "What the heck is this?" as he pointed to a ball rife with scuff marks from the garage wall. I just smiled, too embarrassed by the moment, and couldn't give him an answer.
As a former jock, who often dished out more than a few jabs at teammates, I knew about 10,000 jokes would be coming my way. While leaving the field, Marcus Giles, then the Braves second-baseman said to me, "Did you get that phone call? Your wife said she wants you home, and don't forget to bring her skirt." That was a classic.
I still had to go back to work to do the nightly sportscast. I knew I would take a beating from my co-workers. When I got into my car, stress, anxiety, and embarrassment came together and I was sweating profusely. I was drowning in my own Tsunami.
I was prepared for the moment. I put on a brown paper bag on my head and became the 'unknown sportscaster.' No matter the embarrassment, I can certainly make fun of myself. So, every year, when the baseball season opens, it’s ‘Groundhog Day’ for me. I get that uneasy feeling and hear that voice in my head.
Just don’t bounce it.