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Patrick Hruby

Thrown for a Loss

Presidents, naked skydivers and ceremonial first pitch follies

The sky was dark, the air damp. District Mayor Anthony Williams stood halfway between the mound and home plate at RFK Stadium, baseball in hand.

Landing a team? That was the easy part.

To say that Williams throws like a girl would be a gross understatement - and an insult to high school softball. The man counts votes, not balls and strikes.

Still, he was the obvious choice to toss a ceremonial first pitch to Washington Nationals infielder Jamey Carroll before the team's April 3 exhibition finale.

"He moved up and got it there," Carroll recalls. "Good enough. It was better than the one I caught in spring training, when the guy threw it in the dirt and I took it off the shin."

After his throw, Williams raised his arms in triumph. He had reason to preen: In the long, distinguished history of ceremonial first pitches, his short, undistinguished flutterball qualified as a towering achievement. Mostly because the ball reached home plate.

The same can't be said for John Kerry, who last year came up short in both the presidential election and with a feeble toss at Boston's Fenway Park. Ditto for Ronald Reagan, whose high-and-way, 1986 fling at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium could have downed an incoming Soviet ICBM.

As for the real, live elephant once trotted out by the Oakland A's? The animal simply - and perhaps smartly - dropped the ball on the mound.

"I've caught quite a few first pitches]," says Nationals backup catcher Gary Bennett. "I recommend wearing a cup."

Of course, none of this is meant to dissuade President Bush from throwing out the historic first pitch at tonight's Nationals home opener. By all means, bring it on. But be warned: RFK Stadium ain't the White House T-Ball field. There are easier ways for the leader of the free world to spend a spring evening.

Selling Democrats on Social Security reform, for instance.

"I always expect a bad throw," Nationals manager Frank Robinson says of ceremonial tosses. "You're surprised when it's not."

Presidential pitches

Bush knows surprises. A self-proclaimed "mediocre middle reliever" for Yale's freshman baseball team, the president delivered the most dramatic first pitch in baseball history at Yankee Stadium in New York before Game3 of the 2001 World Series.

With snipers above and the nearby Twin Towers in ruins, Bush donned a New York City fire department windbreaker over his bulletproof vest. Like Williams, he planned to throw from in front of the mound.

Uh-uh, chided Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. This is New York. Throw the full 60 feet, 6 inches. Don't choke.

The crowd buzzing, Bush took to the mound.

"He threw a strike," recalls Nationals catcher Brian Schneider, who plans to catch Bush tonight. "He knows what he's doing. I don't think anyone is worried about him not making it to the plate."

Au contraire. Six months earlier, the hurler-in-chief fired a one-hopper to open Milwaukee's Miller Park, making him the second President Bush to bounce one in the dirt.

At the 1992 opening of Baltimore's Camden Yards, George H.W. Bush dropped a curveball low. Way low. The former Yale baseball captain winced.

"That was the worst toss I've ever seen in my life," Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles said afterward.

Maybe so, but the Bushes don't deserve special scorn. First-pitch futility can happen to anyone. On second thought, make that everyone. MC Hammer (a former Oakland batboy), William Hung (like Hammer, a former recording artist) and Roger Rabbit (like Hammer and Hung, formerly relevant) are among the celebrity chuckers to make Charlie Brown look like Sandy Koufax.

Oh, and so was Mister Rogers. Talk about a rough neighborhood.

"In Milwaukee last year, I believe it was at charity auctions, people would bid for the right to do it," says Bennett, who played for the Brewers last season. "Others are celebrities or dignitaries coming to town. It's more for people in the stands than anything."

Actually, the first pitch tradition began in the stands. Exactly 95 years ago today, President William Howard Taft tossed an Opening Day ball to Senators icon Walter Johnson from his box seat at Washington's American League Park.

Every First Fan since except for Jimmy Carter has followed suit, some more accurately than others: in 1940, FDR uncorked a pitch from the stands at Griffith Stadium that smashed the camera of a newspaper photographer.

Oops. So much for the photo op.

"It's for fun," Carroll says. "[But] you just hope they get it there."

Midgets and naked skydivers

Why the windup woes? Consider the talent. While major league pitchers are chosen for their arms, ceremonial tossers are picked out of a hat. Or so it seems.

How else to reconcile the dad from "American Pie" delivering a first ball in Toronto? (Amazingly, no one was hit below the belt.) Or the "Austin Powers" midget dealing the world's first overhand submarine pitch in San Diego?

Heck, how else to explain actor Martin Sheen, flubbing four first pitches (one outside, one in the dirt, two high) last year in Baltimore?

Sheen was filming a scene for the television drama "The West Wing," in which he plays a fictional president. Art imitates life, in a Mobius strip sort of way.

"It seems like the plate is three miles away," he told reporters afterward. "And the mound is two miles high."

Sheen was exaggerating, but not by much. In 1971, a helicopter dropped the first pitch at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, nearly running Phillies catcher Mike Ryan into the dugout.

More recently, the Florida Marlins had mascot Billy the Marlin parachute into Pro Player Stadium. Midway through the jump, the costume's head blew off, forcing the Navy SEAL inside to touch down in an adjacent parking lot.

A larger and presumably more appreciative audience greeted the first - and last - ceremonial pitch delivered via nude female skydiver, which according to Sports Illustrated took place before a 1978 minor league game in Tucson, Ariz.

"She tried to throw out the first pitch, but she couldn't get it through the screen on the paddy wagon," former Tucson manager Rich Donnelly told the magazine in 1993. "I think she was a dancer at the Cha Cha Club."

Cha Chas aside, the key to a memorable first pitch is practice. Plus fudging.

President Bill Clinton once warmed up with wife Hillary on the White House lawn. Smart move. On Opening Days in Baltimore and Cleveland, he avoided the dirt by throwing from in front of the mound. Smarter still.

Bennett recommends aiming high, if for no other reason than to make his job - and future health insurance premiums - more manageable.

"If you miss, miss high," he says. "I've had a couple of guys fire it right in the dirt, right in front of you, and it was basically self-defense. You've got a glove and a cup on, and that's it for protection."

Lob the ball. Stay close. While tossing a ceremonial first pitch can be difficult, it isn't exactly rocket science. And that's a good thing.

To open Game 5 of the 1995 World Series, NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox flipped a zero-G ball from aboard the orbiting space shuttle Columbia. A scoreboard montage depicted the ball falling to Earth, followed by a real ball appearing above Cleveland's Jacobs Field.

Predictably, the ball landed in center field - light years from home plate, and another reason the first pitch isn't called the first strike.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Times