We need you to be a chump in the chance of a lifetime
RENO – Just let them hit it. Those were the last instructions I heard before Maury Wills stepped into the batter’s box. He was the first hitter during a three-inning exhibition game of “baseball legends” versus “media all-stars” on Tuesday night at Moana Stadium in Reno.
I had the ball on the mound – and what I thought would be the chance of a lifetime. But what transpired left me with memories much different than the ones I thought I’d be bringing home …
A phone call on Monday night had whet my appetite.
“These guys take it seriously. This is no softball game,” the invitation said, “We heard you’re a pretty fair pitcher. You wanna throw against these guys?”
I’m no Greg Maddux and never thought about being a professional. In fact, my pitching career has been limited to a few decent moments for the Tahoe Emeralds in semi-pro summer ball.
But once I heard who I’d be facing, the answer was simple. Wills, Jay Johnstone, Ken McMullen, Bobby Tolan, Lou Johnson, Shooty Babitt, Amos Otis, Tito Fuentes, Jimmy Wynn and John Roseboro, to name a few. These guys are the very essence of what makes baseball the game it is today.
And, I’d be starting opposite Vida Blue. What more reason did I need?
So, once at the stadium I donned my uniform, cleaned and pressed, and made my way to the bullpen. Tim, a soon-to-be-senior at Reed High, was my catcher. I don’t know why he was catching. But he did a fine job. My fastball was popping and curveball was bending nicely. I was ready to test my best against guys who had undoubtedly seen it all.
There was even a spring in my step as I stepped onto the hill. The sun was setting aginst the mountains and the stands were filling up.
As I bent down to grab the ball at the mound, the home plate umpire met me there. “There will be no called third strikes, no walks and no balks,” he said.
Basically, let them hit it, he was telling me. In front of a tons of fans, right before the chance of a lifetime, it was like taking a line drive off the head.
I was to provide the entertainment, not be it. I got the message. And it’s something that, in my gut, I knew was the right thing to do. The stands were about half full. The people were there to see ex-pros, not me.
And that’s what makes this even harder to write.
My job, and I had no choice but to accept it, was to lob Maury Wills a ball any Little-Leaguer would drool over. So I tried. But I couldn’t do it effectively. I couldn’t slow things down enough to groove one over the plate.
I ended up walking Wills, something I thought wasn’t allowed. But that was still cool. Me, and the crowd, knew he’d be trying to steal second base. Too bad the first baseman didn’t think that. From the stretch, I saw Wills dancing around the bag. I knew what he was thinking. Too bad the first baseman didn’t. I turned to show Wills the slowest of my pickoff moves. Too bad the first baseman didn’t see it. The ball rolled into right field and Wills danced to second. The crowd loved it.
What’s going on here, I thought.
“Just throw it over the plate,” came the words of encouragement from my team.
By the time I’d walked the next batter, Tito Fuentes, I got Shooty Babitt to ground out and Amos Otis was given a gift (error) single, Wills had scored. The “legends” were up, 1-0, after the first inning.
This is brutal, I thought, but the show must go on. The media team ended up touching Blue for a couple of base hits. But the umpire, who was in his own dream world, repeating the name of each ex-big leaguer as he was introduced to the crowd, gave Blue the benefit of the strike zone doubt.
So it was back to the mound. Every once in a while I’d let one fly, and the ex-pros were late with their swings – way late. Even a coach waiting for the Reno Chukars game after ours said the hardest thing to do was throw it so they could hit it.
When I finally got a slow ball over, the defense behind me – some of the “media all-stars” who were wearing their best cut-off jeans or sweat pants and seemed more transfixed on who they were on the field with than the fact that we were playing a baseball game – did its best to boot nearly every ball that came their way. There were a couple of decent plays, but it was a typical display of slappy ball. Bobby Tolan got a gift single and scored. Lou Johnson and Fuentes also reached base, mostly on errors. Legends 2, Media “No-Stars” 0.
John Henry Johnson mowed down the media team in the top of the third, thanks a lot to a zone larger than a Volkswagen Bug. I had one more chance.
I pulled Tim the catcher aside. “No more playing around,” I told Tim, his head nodding in agreement. “These guys are making fun of you,” he replied.
I knew it. Even Wills yelled to me from the batter’s box that the fans had paid to see him, not me. Thanks, Maury.
And the fans were getting into the act. “We want to see a real pitcher,” they were saying.
I wish I could’ve yelled back, “You are.”
So as I strode to the mound for my last opportunity in the third inning, determined to mow those guys down, the umpire decided the fans had seen enough. There would be no last chance. I couldn’t help but feel cheated.
It’s impossible to make this not sound like the sourest of grapes. Yes, I did get to start opposite Vida Blue and take the field with some of the game’s greatest. But it was no game. And I was played the fool.
As I walked off the field with my my head down, my soon-to-be-wife, who was watching me “play” for the first time ever, had some words of consolation.
“That’s OK, honey. You just need a little more practice.”
Yes, and a lot less humility.
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