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Aim high, miss Wade, sit down, drink beer

Oh, the pressure.

Tonight the Tampa Bay Devil Rays open a home stand against the Cleveland Indians.

It will be a well-attended game, because of the excellent Cleveland team and the fact that Wade Boggs, Tampa Bay's third baseman, is on the verge of his 3,000th hit.

With great effort, I overcome my natural modesty to add:

I get to throw out the first pitch.

No, really. It is Times Night. With all the newspaper's higher-ups either out of town or reluctant to humiliate themselves, the job has fallen to me.

You might think they would have asked Hubert "I'm Not Vinegar Bend" Mizell, or the able baseball writer Marc Topkin. But it was discreetly pointed out that if either of those gentlemen failed to perform, they would lose credibility forever, and be forced to leave town.

See, there is a crucial responsibility in this role, namely, the baseball must reach the plate. Anything else _ bouncing it in the dirt or, even worse, on the turf _ would bring vast shame.

For days, colleagues have walked by whispering, "Don't blow it."

"Whatever you do," sports columnist Gary Shelton counseled helpfully, "don't hit Wade."

Last year our publisher, Judith Roales, had this duty. If there were a radar gun for measuring newspaper publishers, she would be an ace. As a pitcher of baseballs, however, she did not ... quite ... make the destination.

Circulation subsequently plummeted. Contemptuous readers asked: "How can I rely upon this journalistic outlet when it cannot propel a mere baseball 60 feet and 6 inches?"

The successful pitch is soon forgotten. But the failure is booed lustily by the crowd, and remembered.

Richard Ben Cramer devoted the entire first chapter of his book What It Takes to the catastrophe that befell then-Vice President George Bush, constrained by a bullet-proof vest, at the Houston Astrodome on Oct. 8, 1986:

... He can tell it's short while the throw is still in his hand, and he's trying to get that little extra with his hand, which ends up, fingers splayed, almost waving, as he lands on his right foot, and lists to his left, toward the first-base line, with the vent of his blazer aflap to show his gray flannel backside, with his eyes still following the feckless parabola of his toss, which is not gonna oh, God! not gonna even make the dirt in front of the plate, but bounce off the turf, one dying hop to the ... oh, God!

Closer to home, I interviewed Bob Hastings of St. Petersburg, a senior vice president for First Union, who dutifully prepared by playing catch with his wife. On the fateful night last year he strode confidently toward the mound, but player Bobby Smith was crouched down behind the plate to catch, a tiny target. Hastings drew a breath, trying to stay calm. Then saw himself suddenly on the huge TV screen. I had no idea I was that bald. Panicked. Bounced it at the plate. (He did better this year.)

I sought professional advice from Devil Rays pitcher Rick White. The reason so many people dump it is because of the slope of the mound, he opined.

"Throw it at the head of whoever's catching," White said. "Don't throw it at their glove, but at their head. That way you're sure to get it there. You might get Raymond (the team mascot). He's got a real big head you can aim at. Half the time Raymond doesn't catch it anyway."

White concluded: Don't throw from a wind-up. That could get ugly. (I had the sudden, vivid image of actually falling off the pitcher's mound in front of 40,000 people.)

A full house. Personal and institutional pride at stake. Friends and colleagues in the stands. My plan is to shake off the catcher's first sign, throw the heat and then return to the stands to have a tasty celebratory beer and to cheer on Mr. Boggs.

Either that, or to leave town on a midnight bus.