First-pitch link with JFK will be hard to top at RFK

Kutyna still has '62 ball, advice for toss tonight

Baseball

April 14, 2005|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Periodically, Marty Kutyna gets offers to sell his prized baseball.

But how many people have an autographed ball thrown by a youthful president inaugurating a new stadium? "To Marty," it says on the ball. "John F. Kennedy."

Kutyna, then a Senators pitcher, scooped up the ceremonial first pitch from Kennedy in 1962, the year D.C. Stadium - now known as Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium - opened for baseball.

At 72, he still gets a handful of fan letters each month, most asking about his fleeting interaction with JFK.

Kutyna has been thinking about that day 43 years ago as he contemplates tonight's re-opening of the newly renovated stadium for a new season and a new team.

The game between the Washington Nationals and the Arizona Diamondbacks marks the continuation of the presidential first-pitch tradition in the nation's capital.

"It's always a big thrill," Kutyna said of having the president inaugurate a season, or in this case a team.

The Nationals have already played nine games and are 5-4, but this will be their first regular-season appearance at their new home. "It's a shame they didn't have the [presidential] pitch in Washington for all of these years," Kutyna said.

Tonight's game is one of the hottest Washington sports tickets in years. Ticket brokers were asking as much as $1,250 for the best seats.

"It's going to be a night to remember," said William Hall, a member of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which helped lure the former Montreal Expos here and has overseen the renovation of the stadium.

Presidential first pitches began with William Howard Taft in 1910 and continued through 10 more presidents, ending with Richard Nixon in 1969 - two years before the Senators left town to become the Texas Rangers.

After that, presidents continued the ritual sporadically in other cities, including Baltimore, while Washington waited for the game to return.

Among those who caught the chief executives' pitches: Orioles catchers Chris Hoiles, Rick Dempsey and Mickey Tettleton, Yankees pitchers Fritz Peterson, Allie Reynolds and Johnny Sain and Senators pitchers Steve Ridzik and Walter Johnson.

And Marion "Marty" Kutyna.

Kutyna entered 1962 as a 29-year-old, $13,000-a-year relief pitcher with a 9-10 career record. The Senators were an expansion team (the original team moved to Minnesota after the 1960 season) and had played their first season at old Griffith Stadium in 1961 while D.C. Stadium was being built.

It was at Griffith Stadium that Kutyna gave up home run No. 45 in the historic 61-homer season of Roger Maris.

Recent tradition has a president taking the field and throwing the ceremonial ball to a designated target, usually the catcher. Nationals catcher Brian Schneider said he hopes he'll be receiving tonight's pitch from President Bush.

But in Kutyna's day, the president lobbed the ball from the stands to a cluster of a players who competed for the souvenir.

"They were grouped in a semicircle and JFK threw the ball and he [Kutyna] was the lucky guy that caught it," said Dick O'Neill, Kutyna's stepson.

Kutyna said he had strategically positioned himself farther from the president than most of the other players.

"I saw he had s strong arm from the previous year [at Griffith Stadium]," Kutyna said. "So I was in the last row between home and first. He threw it right over the dugout. Five or six people jumped up and hit it and it just rolled to me," said the retiree, who lives in Delray Beach, Fla.

"I went down like I was recovering a fumble," he said.

Kutyna presented the ball to Kennedy, who autographed it and smiled as he shook the pitcher's hand.

Receiving the ball was one of Kutyna's career highlights, right along, he said, with making the major leagues after a half-dozen seasons in the minors.

He said collectors have offered him five-figure sums for the ball, but he's not selling - at least not yet.

"It's worth a lot of money, maybe more to a Kennedy collector than a sports buff," his stepson said. "When you've got one thing, it's probably hard to step up and let it go. I say, `You haven't got a lot of money, let it go.' "

Kutyna wasn't among about a dozen old Senators invited back to RFK for tonight's game. "They forget the old-timers," he said.

But Kutyna has some advice for the current player who catches the first pitch: "Hang onto it."

Nationals' home opener

Opponent: Arizona Diamondbacks

Site, when: RFK Stadium, Washington, 7:05 tonight

TV/Radio: Ch. 20/104.1 FM

Starters: Diamondbacks' Javier Vazquez (0-1, 15.43) vs. Nationals' Livan Hernandez (0-1, 5.40)

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