By now, everybody’s seen the video of the poor Chicago White Sox employee of the month who won the opportunity to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Sox game. Her toss was, in the words of Bob Uecker, “just a bit outside.”
She hit a photographer who was standing to her left, in a different time zone from home plate. It was one of the worst, funniest ceremonial first pitches ever. There was rapper 50 Cent, who missed the plate by a country mile, Michael Jordan, who threw the pitch 10 feet over the catcher’s head, and Houston’s Olympic hero Carl Lewis, whose baseball pitch was almost as horrible as his singing pitch.
Mariah Carey wore high heels and threw the ball straight down.
Pitchin' ain't easy
To fans in the stands, and people watching on TV, throwing the ceremonial pitch looks easy. What’s so difficult about tossing a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches to a catcher? It’s not like there’s a hitter up there. You’re basically just playing catch in your backyard.
It’s simple, no excuse for throwing the ceremonial first anywhere other than right over the plate. That’s the point I may have made several years ago in a column. I could do it, no sweat, with my eyes closed.
Your pitcher...Ken Hoffman
The Houston Astros called me on it. Okay, hot shot, how about you throw the ceremonial first pitch next week? The Dodgers will be in town, and there will be a big crowd.
I accept — on one condition. I don’t want some assistant bullpen coach who wears No. 84 catching for me. I want either (Astros owner) Drayton McLane or (TV analyst) Jim Deshaies.
The Astros called back: Deshaies says he’ll do it.
The reason most people throw the ceremonial first pitch into the dirt is because they’re not used to throwing off a big league mound, which is higher than you’d think. The pitcher’s rubber is 10 inches higher than the field. It slopes downward at the rate of one inch per foot.
Most of us are used to playing catch or co-ed softball games on flat Earth. It’s the slope of the big league mound that causes mortals to stumble forward and bounce the ball toward home plate.
So … that weekend, I went to Wallin Field, home of West U Little League, and practiced throwing off a mound. I was confident that I could throw a strike across home plate at Minute Maid Park. But I also had a Plan B that would leave nothing to chance.
I got to Minute Maid Park 30 minutes before game time. An Astros media rep handed me a ball and pointed toward the mound. Some first pitchers walk to a spot in front of the mound and throw from about 45 feet on flat ground. Weenies.
I brought my son Andrew and his friend, also Andrew, with me to the mound. Then two things happened that threw me off: I heard the announcer say my name, and I turned and saw my name on the scoreboard. That brought it home, and I suddenly got nervous and scared: what if I throw the ball straight into the ground?
Making matters 100 times worse, after I instructed the Andrews to stay by my side, they noticed a few real-life Astros in the dugout and ran toward them. I was all alone, standing on a big league mound, holding a baseball across the seams in a classic fastball grip, with Jim Deshaies behind the plate. And my kid is bothering Astros right before they play the Dodgers. That's pressure.
I had practiced striding forward and throwing a straight pitch, but with nerves setting in, I went with Plan B.
Deshaies squatted down, I planted both feet on the pitcher’s rubber, and threw the ball … without striding forward and risking embarrassment.
Stee-rike! Deshaies brought the ball out to the mound, took a pen from his pocket and autographed it. I kept the ball … and the pen. I’m always looking for a pen.
Fun facts about Deshaies: he was the 1,000th player to wear the Yankees uniform in a game. In 1986, he set a major league record by striking out the first eight batters in a game. He holds the major league record for most at bats without an extra base hit (440 ABs). This is my favorite: He was born in Massena, New York, and readily admits that he is the second-most famous person from there. Massena's favorite son: actor Hal Smith, who played Mayberry's town drunk Otis Campbell on the Andy Griffith Show.
I dragged the Andrews out of the Astros dugout, and we took our seats in the stands. Around the seventh inning, I got a call, they showed my first pitch during the Astros TV broadcast, with Deshaies analyzing my throwing form and accuracy.
Play-by-play announcer Bill Brown’s only comment … “Why is he wearing a bowling shirt?”