I mentioned last week that I’d won a contest with a prize that afforded me the rare sports opportunity of throwing out the first pitch before a Royals game. My experience was interesting to say the least. And you bet I’d do it again if given the chance to. So how’d I do?
First, more on the background on the contest. Saturday June 5 was Sunflower Broadband Day at the K, and being a Lawrence resident, Sunflower Broadband is my cable/internet provider. For one reason or another, I’d followed them on Twitter and noticed their announcement of the contest to determine the #1 Royals fan. Tempted by the chance to step foot on the field at Kauffman Stadium, I put together 500 words as to why I fit that bill, submitted it and waited.
Nearly a week later, I learned that I’d been chosen as the winner, prompting me to text message and email about anyone I knew who’d understand the significance of the event. The best response came from a friend who asked “An essay contest? Are you twelve?” Ah, I love my friends.
Then came the mad scramble to get as many people out to Kauffman to share the experience with me. I won four tickets for myself and guests, which is great, until you realize you want more people to come out. But I made it work and as it turned out a few friends were already attending the game anyway, before any kind of contest had even reared its head. Bonus!
Then came the real concern. You’ve seen the clips. Some schlub stands in front of the mound (or worse, in front of it) and proceeds to toss the ball 40 of the 60’6″. I’d done some pitching my last four years of recreation summer league baseball, so I wasn’t that worried about bouncing the ball. But it did add some pressure. It’s one thing for a retired veteran who’s throwing with shrapnel in his shoulder to bounce the pitch. But for a reasonably in shape 29-year old (who’d even thrown a ball a few thousand times) to do so — it’s almost traitorous to America.
I only had a few days between picking up my tickets and instructions, but still put off preparing for the throw until the day before. I grabbed my friend Jonathan, who I’d like to thank for volunteering for the job, and we headed to an open field to throw. I walked out a crude estimation of 65 feet and started to throw. I’d decided early that I’d have to go from the stretch. I think there’s a right way, as a baseball fan, to throw the first pitch, especially if you’ve played the game a little and followed it for 90% of your life like I have. It’s such a unique situation that I think you HAVE to throw off the mound – when else will you get to stand on a major league mound in front of 15-20 thousand?
But most importantly, you can’t bounce it, and you can’t bounce it by being cocky. So that ruled out the full windup. I always threw a little like Kevin Appier, mimicking his back shoulder dip, but the whole process seemed like there would be too many moving parts and if my mechanics were off, that ball would fall embarrassingly short. Again, the only thing worse than bouncing it is bouncing it trying to show off. Thus, the stretch seemed the only way to go.
I threw about 60 pitches in that warmup session, going wide on a few and getting ahead of myself and bouncing two or three, but for the most part, I was “bangin’ strikes” to quote Ned Yost. I felt reassured that I still knew how to throw a baseball, and had gotten a judgment of the distance in my mind.
The Big Day
Oddly, once I’d gotten up that morning, I felt more nervous than I did on the trip out there. To occupy my mind, I went and got a haircut (since I didn’t want to look homeless on CrownVision), filled up the car with gas, and puttered around until it was time to head out. I was to meet up with Sunflower representatives and a producer from Fox Sports Kansas City about an hour and a half before the game, then we’d meet with the Royals representative.
Piling myself, my roommate Tanner and his girlfriend Liz into the car, we were headed to Kansas City, stopping to pick up our friend Jamie and hit Hyvee (official grocery store of your Kansas City Royals) for some burgers and picked up some Sam Adams Coastal Wheat (my favorite beer of the spring/summer so far – marvelous). We had a bit of time to tailgate, as I didn’t need to meet the representatives too soon before the game’s 6:10 start time, and once we’d hit the road, the nerves had settled down. We fired up the grill, popped a couple of bottles open, started up a game of washers and had at it until it was time to go to the gates.
During that time, a few other friends showed up; two guys from my roto league – Max and Keaton – came around and informed me that they’d be booing me, and my friend Carol snuck up on us too to keep me in line. Meanwhile the wishes of “good luck” came in on my cell phone (along with warnings not to put it in the dirt – I can’t stress how important that advice is if you find yourself in the same position). Jamie and I went to an open spot in the parking lot to get a few more tosses in as the time approached, and I was dialed in. I was intentionally throwing a little high to avoid the dreaded bounce, but I’d rather be high than have my catcher chase it to the backstop.
Finally, we went to the gates where I met up with Andrea, Lawrence and Rod, my catcher, from Sunflower as well as Dan from Fox Sports KC. After a moment or two of introductions, Kasey, the pregame ceremonies coordinator, came out to lead us into the stadium. We cut through the Diamond Club lobby and moved down a floor via elevator and into the belly of the beast.
Kasey directed us to the press room, where we sat awaiting instructions and cues along with winners of various age groups in the Run, Pitch, and Hit competition, the singer of the national anthem and the color guard. While Rod, general manager of Sunflower Broadband, went on the field to be interviewed by Nate Bukaty, I waited in the press room, talking about minor leaguers with some of the pregame crew.
Here’s Rod (L) and myself sitting in the press room waiting to hit the field.
They told us the timeline for the events, and I hit the phone to let people know that 5:52 was go time. I’d set up a potential live feed from qik.com via my phone (a Droid) to show with those who couldn’t be at the stadium (like my family back in Hays and my older sister in San Francisco), with an estimation to log in about 5:45, so I wasn’t too far off.
When time came to hit the field, they led us through the tunnel where we passed Jose Valverde sitting against the wall talking to someone on his cell phone. Kinda weird.
Once I stepped up onto the field, I wasn’t really nervous. I looked around and took in the surroundings while Matt, our attendant, led us to the outer dirt of the field to await our cue from Mike McCartney, Royals public address announcer. Two other guys went before us, representing a charity which I didn’t catch. While they waited to head towards the diamond, I finally realized that I was in front of the Royals dugout. You know where the manager stands on the steps before he goes to pull a pitcher? That’s where I was. Took me five minutes of standing there to realize it, though.
That is some green gas, I’ll mention. That grounds crew does a heck of a job out there day in and day out.
I tried to get a picture of Alberto Callaspo, but he sprinted through the dugout and onto the field before I could get the camera turned on.
The first pairing went up to make their throw and the pitcher also chose to use the mound. Throwing left-handed, he put the ball about five feet in front of the plate and the catcher, attempting to block it, nearly stumbled backwards to the ground, but managed to catch his footing.
That wasn’t going to be me.
We waited a few beats before Matt tapped us both on the shoulder and said “your turn”. Walking out to the mound, I let out a breath or a whistle, amazed by the surroundings. If I were ten years old and you’d tell me in 2010 I’d be walking out to the mound at Kauffman Stadium, I’d probably agree with you. Granted I’d assume I was going out to start the game in an entirely different fashion. Still, walking out I thought about all of those childhood dreams of playing for the hometown team, standing in front of a crowd, delivering a pitch to home plate.
It was a pattern I’d thought of time and again growing up. Just ask my parents. I used to take a pink rubber ball and flung it at my parents’ bedroom door so often from age 8 to age 12 that I put a hole through it from repeated collisions. I would also hurl it outside, putting dents in the aluminum siding and occasionally busting out the basement window with a wild pitch. Hour after hour, I’d sit outside, flinging that pink ball until it turned to a tattered oblong orb, requiring me to replace it with another and restart the process. I graduated to throwing a real baseball across the yard at a cinder block fence, using the junction of the lawn and sidewalk as a makeshift rubber, practicing my “curveball” (which rarely curved) and my “fastball” (which wasn’t fast). I lost a half dozen baseballs in the backyard roughage, with some putting a dent in the air conditioning unit on our back porch in those common overthrow situations.
I walked towards the mound, taking care to hop over the baseline on my way. I barely heard McCartney but made out that he was way ahead of me, giving me my cue to “Fire Away” before I’d made it to the mound.
I looked in towards Rod behind the plate. He’d informed me that he was the catcher on his softball team, so he could block it if necessary. When he asked if I wanted him to crouch or not, I’d suggested he go about halfway, keeping the target high, but not quite conceding a “real” pitch. My estimations of the distance were pretty much right on while warming up which gave me comfort. I put my right foot against the rubber, a touch on the left side like my rec days, employed my four-seam grip, kicked my leg a bit above waist high, made sure to get a long arm while pulling back to deliver, pointing my left shoulder to the plate, and sprung forward, releasing the ball to the plate.
It might have depended on the umpire, but I think most would have called the pitch a strike. It crossed the plate about letter high for most, and while a true batter would have cranked it to the Hall of Fame, in a vacuum, I’m crediting myself with a rock solid pitch. I unconsciously gave a little fist pump on the throw, both excited for not bouncing it but also for the quality by most first-pitch standards and met Rod in the middle to shake hands and move back to the dugout.
We went back through the tunnel and on the elevator back up to the Diamond Suites, Matt mentioned it was a good throw and there were other congratulations on the whole event. I offered to sub for anyone else if they ever needed an emergency first-pitch participant which I was more serious about than I think they assumed.
When I made it to my seat and met with my friends, I had a celebratory beer waiting (Boulevard Zon, mmm, perfect on a 92 degree day). I hate to admit it, but I spent more time responding on facebook to comments on my wall and on status messages than I did watching the game. Then after a few moments, my mom messaged me to say that they showed it on FSN.
Okay, now THAT’s cool.
All told, I found the Kauffman Stadium crew to be very personable and helpful. They were on top of their game as far as pregame ceremonies go. The delegation from Sunflower and Fox Sports struck me as a solid group of people as well, so everything considered, I was more than pleased with the entire experience. I highly recommend it to anyone if you get the chance to enter a contest or have an offer to participate in any way.
Now, if you’re curious, here’s some additional footage I’ve compiled from photos and videos taken by friends:
The top video is the qik.com feed. Unfortunately it had no zoom available, but the sound is great. You can hear some guys nearby saying “no pressure” after the first guy put his ball in the dirt. The lighting’s not great, but you can follow the ball, too.
The bottom video was filmed on my camera once we’d made it back to Jamie’s house to check the DVR. Just before the start of the second inning, they showed the clip of my first pitch, which is a good view and shows that it did indeed cross the plate. We’re talking over it and I’m remarking on the absurdity of getting onto the field at all, but it’s pretty cool to see it. At least to me. Granted, I’m biased.
Finally, if you’ve made it this far, if you have any similar on-field experiences, share them below.