Sunday, February 25, 2018
Sports

Why the secretary of the Navy is an expert on first pitches

Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy since 2009, began throwing out first pitches to bring attention to the Navy and the Marine Corps. Now he is thought to be the only person to have thrown one at all 30 major-league ballparks. Mabus has long had an interest in baseball. The governor of Mississippi from 1988 to 1992 and later the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, he grew up rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: How did you start throwing out first pitches?

A: I was in St. Louis for the dedication of the USS St. Louis, and the Cardinals said, "Come over and name it at the game and throw out the first pitch." So I went out there on the field, and 45,000 people stood up and cheered. We thought, "This is a good way to put a face on the Navy and connect with the American people," so I started doing it when I dedicated a ship or submarine, or when there were swearing-in ceremonies for service members on the field before games.

Do you practice before you go out on the field?

Most stadiums have a place under the stands that's marked off, and you can see how long it is. A few times, I've gone down the third- or first-base line. One time, I went to the bullpen. But it's a waste, as I've learned that whether I warm up or not, it doesn't have much impact.

Your advice to first-timers?

I've learned three things: Don't go on to the mound — throw from in front of it. Throw high: At my age, I ain't going to overthrow anyone. And third, nobody comes to see the first pitch, so no matter how badly you do, nobody will hold it against you.

Why not go up on the mound?

You are not used to it; nobody is used to it unless you're a pitcher. Throwing down from it is very hard, and you're surely going to one-hop it.

Should they use a big windup?

Pitch from the stretch, and throw the ball overhand, not sidearm. Don't come in with this big windup, because who knows where the ball will go?

It seems like there's a first-pitch industrial complex, and there's now more first pitches.

Sometimes, I'm one of four or five. A 7-year-old will go out on the mound and blaze one right in, and then they call on you to go out there.

What type of player do you typically throw to?

I'm usually throwing to someone who is not playing that day. They're not going to chance it with someone important, especially a pitcher. It's usually a backup catcher, and occasionally, it's someone who is pretty famous, and you go, "Oh."

Do you get to meet the other players on the team?

I've met Big Papi (Red Sox slugger David Ortiz) now three or four times, and every time, I'm like, "Wow."

How many first pitches had you thrown before you were secretary?

About 10.

I can see why a team in the U.S. would be more than happy to have you throw out the pitch. But how did you get to do it in Toronto?

The Canadian chief naval officer had seen me threw out the first pitch in Detroit, and he said, "Come up to Toronto, and we'll do simultaneous first pitches to show our partnership." So instead of going to Ottawa, I went to Toronto, and we did our usual meeting and then did it together.

Is doing it simultaneously harder?

There's a lot more room for comparison.

Most politicians are booed when they are announced at sporting events. Are you?

As governor, I would get booed. ... But in this job I don't get booed and I get a nice reception. That's not because of me; it's because of the job and that I'm representing the Navy and Marines. Nobody is going to boo me in the off chance that they'll think they're booing the sailors and Marines.

Do you still get excited?

I've been going to baseball games my whole life, but when you walk through the tunnel and come out the dugout, it's just a different experience.

The Navy has a ship named the USS Cooperstown to commemorate the 10 percent of Hall of Famers who are veterans. Won't that percentage get smaller as time goes on because so few players today have served?

Today, less than 1 percent of the country wears the uniform. We have to work harder at making the connection because it's dangerous in a democracy when there's too much distance between those who are doing the protecting and those who are protected.

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