A Fevered Pitch

It's lonely at the top of the mound for those throwing out the ceremonial first bal at an Orioles game.

April 03, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

It sounds innocent enough: the ceremonial first pitch. Yet those who throw it, from presidents to high school principals, from NFL legends to Esskay hot dog executives, often experience this tiny nagging thought that builds and builds until it becomes a terrifying internal scream:

Please don't let me blow it.

The ritual for the first pitch seldom varies: They hand you an official major league baseball. You walk out -- alone -- onto a dazzling green field and climb atop the pitcher's mound, which feels as if it has the slope of Mount Fuji. A packed stadium is eyeing you intently. And now the PA announcer intones: "OK, Mr. or Ms. So-and-So, it's your pitch!"

Piece of cake, right?

Are you kidding? You're lucky to get through this without a paramedic thumping on your chest and pleading: "Breathe for me, now! Breathe!"

Monday afternoon at 3:05, President Clinton is scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Orioles season opener against Tampa Bay at Camden Yards, although the little matter of a war in the Balkans may change that.

Thus begins another long-awaited baseball season, and with it, another nightly parade of pretenders throwing out ceremonial first pitches. But come with us now, back in time, to the Orioles home opener in April 1996.

Scheduled to throw out the first pitch: fireballing right-hander William Jefferson Clinton.

Fifteen minutes before gametime at Camden Yards, the president and his security retinue disappear.

Is he working the phones on a matter of grave importance to national security? Helicoptering back to Washington to deal with a sudden world crisis?

No. The commander-in-chief of our armed forces, the Leader of the Free World, the most powerful man on the planet, is in the bowels of the stadium, putting that million-dollar arm through some warm-up tosses, brow furrowed in concentration.

Because he knows this:

He knows that if he rainbows this baby into the stands or sends a worm-burner scudding along the grass, it will end up on the 6 o'clock news and soon the late-night comedians, Leno and Letterman and the rest, will be picking over it like buzzards.

He will be a laughingstock. Images of that pitiful toss will be beamed around the world. His buddy, Tony Blair in Great Britain, will have a great laugh and so will Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and every other head of state.

Maybe they'll even show the clip in Havana, where Fidel Castro, puffing a cigar and relaxing in his La-Z-Boy, will snort: "I have cataracts the size of teacups and a shoulder that swings like a rusty gate and I could still throw better than that."

On this day, Clinton does not embarrass himself. Although encumbered by the requisite bulletproof vest, he throws a strike. The ball floats like a wounded bird, but somehow finds its way to catcher Chris Hoiles' mitt.

Lots of volunteers

Despite the gut-churning anxiety it evokes, there is no shortage of candidates to throw the ceremonial first pitch at Oriole games.

Each week, the team gets hundreds of letters from National Honor Society members, college valedictorians, regular Joes, lifelong O's fans, couples celebrating their golden wedding anniversary, all pleading for a shot at this singular form of celebrity.

The Orioles get a surprising number that read like this:

My son, Skippy, serves overseas in our armed forces. He returns home next week and is a huge Orioles fan. What better way to welcome him home than by allowing him the honor of throwing out the first pitch for your very fine baseball team!"

"Unfortunately, we have to say no," explains the O's director of ballpark entertainment, Spiro Alafassos. "Otherwise we'd have to do it for every other veteran."

An events committee composed of Oriole marketing and PR types selects the person invited to throw out the first pitch. Often the invitation is tied to a news event (Apollo 13 commander James Lovell during a tour to promote the space program) or current trend in pop culture (Irish dancer Michael Flatley).

For the Opening Day first pitch, the president is always invited; if he can't make it, the White House often suggests a substitute from the current administration.

In recent years, Presidents Reagan, Bush and Carter have thrown out the Opening Day pitch. So has Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright (the first woman to do so; she threw a sinker that dug a small crater 15 feet from home plate) and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala.

As with everything else in life, being a celebrity doesn't hurt your cause here.

Actress Lynda Carter has thrown the first pitch, and so has pro golfer Tom Kite, NASCAR legend Bobby Allison, horse trainer Bob Baffert, jockey Kent Desormeaux, author Tom Clancy and veteran broadcaster Jim McKay.

Sick kids have thrown out the first pitch, and so have well kids. So have mothers on Mother's Day and fathers on Father's Day.

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