Stepping Onto The Field
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As I walk toward the mound, a roar washes over me. Fifty two thousand baseball fans have noticed my presence. I peer around the stadium and I see only a blur of humanity. I can’t make out any single person, just a mass of people, all one, an ocean surrounding my island of turf. The waves around me are moving, people on their feet perhaps, or maybe turning to see me, I can’t tell. I step over the line on my treacherous journey. The powdered white first base line marks the border of the empty field where I will face the ultimate risk of being found shameful by a rather large jury of my peers. I am the first one to cross that line tonight. I am the only person on this virgin turf, freshly rolled and coifed for tonight’s game. I am feeling very much alone.
The national anthem is over. Good evening, Denver. I’ll be throwing out the first pitch. This is the Major League. I’m walking out onto Coors field, home of the Colorado Rockies, who will be hosting the Philadelphia Phillies tonight. Who cares if both teams are battling for last place? This is still the most terrifying evening of my life. I always thought I wanted to be famous. Now I’m not so sure.
I have rappelled off cliffs, flown into clouds, soared on ridge tops in gliders without engines, walked in Hanoi alone at night. I have risked bodily harm on multiple occasions. But no experience ever provided an opportunity to look so bad. Every one of my adventures has been intertwined with the ultimate vulnerability, the risk of death. But I need more courage to face humiliation. When I am dead, vulnerability and loss of control won’t matter.
Tonight I am scaling my personal Mt Everest, without oxygen. I haven’t touched a hard ball since 1970 so I’m a little rusty. My sisters are dancing in my head, playing catch with me as a kid, all wrist, no arm. Danny Weinstein’s dad, my fourth grade little league coach…he’s in here somewhere… c’mon, Mr. Weinstein, remind me how to throw!
I’m clad in a yellow polyester sport jacket and slacks imprinted with black yellow pages type. I’ve been hired as America’s Idea Coach, and I’ve been traveling around America dispensing ideas at public events to promote the new yellow pages logo. The tour ends in Denver at this ball game.
My yellow pages outfit is six sizes too big, designed for portly Jon Lovitz to wear in TV commercials. I have the cuffs rolled over, which was fine for mall appearances and state fairs. But this is a sporting event. With television coverage. If the cuffs of my pants roll down they’ll trip me on my way to the mound. Or maybe my sleeves will unroll and swallow the ball…
I need to keep the jacket buttoned to cover up the waistband of the pants, which would reach my chest if I hadn’t rolled it down over my belt, which is all that is keeping the slacks from falling to my knees. So I’ll be pitching in a buttoned sportcoat tonight. “Put me in coach,” I mutter, as I swing my arms while checking my uniform in the mirror behind the bathroom door in my hotel.
In my hand is a commemorative “first pitch” baseball. I have held this ball for the past ten minutes as I stand in front of the Rockies dugout. I’m casually tossing the ball a few feet straight up from my pitching hand, waiting for the National Anthem. I’m warming up, playing a little catch with myself, looking casual, loosening up the joints, squinting under the lights, adjusting my hat, pressing my tongue into my lower lip as if I have a wad of chaw. I can do this, I can make it to the plate. No problem.
Earlier today, I practiced. I paced off sixty feet six inches in the parking lot out back behind the Embassy Suites. In my personal bullpen, I threw five fast balls at the side of the dumpster, to approximates the strike zone (at least the first one was fast, the other four got progressively slower). On the sixth pitch, the ball bounced on the pavement a few feet short of my target, simulating the potentially most embarrassing moment of my lifetime. What might it be like to have 52,000 people laugh at me? “Can you believe that wimp couldn’t even reach the plate?” I decide to rest my arm until 7:10 tonight.
I receive the signal to walk. Time slows down. My pounding heart, a deafening slow-motion blump bump, blump bump, blump bump, replaces the sound of the crowd. It’s taking forever to move to the mound, I am in Jell-O, no molasses, quicksand! Fighting to move to the mound. Must …get …to…mound.
I recoil in terror. My nose is six stories high on the jumbotron in center field. It’s all I see as I head to my destination. And then announcer’s voice fills the stadium with deafening reverberation, “LLLLLAAAAYYYDDDIES AAAAND GENTLEMEN, AnnnD now, from STAAAAAAAMFORD Connecticut, please wellllcome, the US West idea expert, …DAAAAAaaaaaaVID SIEBEK ….” Who? Me? We went over this last week, when I provided a phonetically spelled version of my often-butchered last name. How could you arbitrarily lop off an entire syllable in front of all these fans! I’ve never even seen junk mail with such a lousy mispronunciation!
The crowd doesn’t seem to care; they won’t remember me, unless I really screw up. Another man’s humiliation is good entertainment. A guy in a yellow suit throwing a ball is boring when you’ve come to watch a game, unless he touches what you hold close, your private fear of looking bad, and he blows it in a dramatic way in front of a full house. That very fear keeps most of us sitting on the sidelines lest we risk looking badly in front of just one person, like someone who says no to a date, or a boss who turns down a request for a raise. Courage may look like a willingness to challenge death but it’s actually a willingness to take a chance on living, regardless of the outcome. Stepping onto the field is all that really matters.
I am at the mound now, well in front of it, anyway. The dirt on the mound is sacred, can’t be touched by anyone other than the real pitcher. “DO NOT TOUCH THE MOUND,” they told me, as I embarked on my journey. So there I stand, ball in hand, on the grass. I look to second base, to see if the runner is cheating toward third. I am greeted by a neat reverse angle shot on the jumbotron of my bald spot peeking through the hole on the back of my baseball cap, just above the plastic adjustable head band. I turn to face the catcher. He crouches, pounds his fist into his mitt, and fires me a signal, or gives me the finger, I am not sure which. Now I have tunnel vision. It’s that guy’s mitt and me. This ball is hitting that mitt. It will not stick to my fingers and end up in the dirt, or bean some fan in the stands, I AM HITTING THAT MITT. I dare not look at the crowd, lest I realize what I am doing and where I am, and the magnitude of the humiliation I might be about to endure. I wind up, taking the ball behind my neck, to approximate what I saw on my elementary school baseball cards. With the most dramatic reaching sweep of my arm and extension of my leg, I turn and fire. I set the seams of the ball spinning toward the plate. I land in my post pitch crouch, in spite of the fact that I don’t even have a mitt to catch the line drive that isn’t coming my way.
The catcher is tall, I discover, with long arms too, as he springs up on his toes to make the catch. “A little high,” he says, “but I’ve seen worse.” “But you gave me the signal to throw it over the batter’s head,” I say. He smiles and hands me my commemorative ball. I head for the showers accompanied by the mildly interested roar of the crowd. Watching me do it right produced only a yawn. The fans are ready to move on.
What’s the worst you’ve ever seen?” I ask the Rockies rep, as she escorts me through the tunnels to the locker room.
“A three hopper.”
As I watched the real players take the field, the only shame I felt was from almost refusing this opportunity. I was fixated on the quality of the pitch, as if it was the ultimate measure of my manhood, when my outfit was so silly and distracting to the audience, perhaps that was all they saw. This realization put my shame in perspective and freed me to laugh at my fear.
I struck-out my humiliation. I have the autographed first pitch game ball right here on my desk to remind me when I forget.
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