I am writing about a personal experience that some people would consider the realization of a fantasy. Last Tuesday, I had the honor of throwing the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park.
When I was offered this unique opportunity as part of the Red Sox promotional Jewish Heritage Night, I realized that the potential was there for me to embarrass not only Bedford, but the entire New England Jewish community. But I agreed to do it anyway. The town could use a good laugh, and forgiveness is a central part of Jewish theology.
The following account is broken into “takeaways,” which is a lazy way of avoiding the challenge of formulating a cohesive narrative:
- Who bestows the honor? One thing to understand in context is that this was an honor presented by my longtime employer, Maimonides School, made available by the Red Sox in exchange for a guaranteed minimum of ticket sales for the May 30 game. Everyone involved with this event representing the Red Sox was very nice, but Maimonides School purchased my ticket, drove me to the park, and provided the video recording. I am grateful beyond words. And I understand the Red Sox require such transactional opportunities to help meet player payroll.
- Assembling the entourage. Pre-game on-field participants enter Fenway through Gate E, across from the Cask and Flagon, and proceed through the catacombs, past field maintenance equipment and supplies to what passes for the preparatory “green room,” which in this case appeared to be the break room for the grounds crew. The hostesses and hosts from fan services took names and lined everybody up in order of appearance – representatives of other Jewish schools, the director of the regional EPA, a service dog and its handler, three Gold-Star families, and the anthem singer among them. We squeezed around the lunch tables and soon left through the door where we had entered. Posted above the exit sign is the word SHOWTIME. That may be there to inspire the honorees, the grounds crew, or both.
- Fenway epiphany. The pre-game entourage stepped out of the Fenway bowels and onto the field of play through an opening in the left-field corner, at a 90-degree angle against the legendary wall. I think it was the sportswriter Roger Angell who wrote that one’s first view of the Fenway ballfield is like the moment when black-and-white suddenly becomes Technicolor in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” The overwhelming expanse of lush, brilliant grass and late-afternoon sky when seen from ground level literally takes your breath away – at least when your priority isn’t performing like a world-class baseball player.
- Always a Bedford angle. The pre-game escort allows for several minutes to enjoy the view before formal activities, and that’s when a few Bedford folks made themselves known after working their way to the front row. School Committeeman Dan Brosgol and his fellow podcaster Dr. Dave Geller of Bedford Pediatrics wore so much Red Sox gear that I’m surprised they weren’t warming up with the players. Over on the first-base side, Rabbi Susan Abramson, the dean of Massachusetts rabbis in seniority, also in a Sox jacket, gave her blessing. And state Rep. Ken Gordon actually met me on the field, accompanied by his Nikon. Gordon is not only a legislator and a season-ticket holder; he is also a former sportswriter. He acted like he had been there before, and it was no act. Indeed, David Friedman, the Red Sox’s executive vice president for legal and government affairs, recognized him and came over for a conversation.
- No place for a fanboy. If pre-game participants hope to converse with or even make eye contact with baseball players, those are not part of the deal. Warmups are over by the time the party walks onto the left-field warning track, and the teams are in their respective dugouts, not clearly visible from our vantage point. A couple of Cincinnati Reds appeared for some last-minute outfield sprints. I wonder if they know that because of the 1950s political climate, the nickname was changed to Redlegs for a few years.
- Realization sets in. Once the pre-game activities begin, the realization sets in – this is really happening. The public address system doesn’t carry well in foul territory on the first-base side, so it’s not clear from ground level what’s going on. All I know is I follow Cantor Alicia Stillman, who will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I asked her if she wanted to change places; she thought I was joking. People in the stands really start paying attention to the anthem, and its aftermath: the ceremonial first pitch. And when the final notes faded and the fans cheered, an attendant stepped forward and told me to move to the mound. And I was completely relaxed – because I realized that at my age, there are only low expectations.
- Start the pitch clock. I decided to throw from the dirt at the foot of the mound, and ad-libbed with an exaggerated tip of the cap when I heard cheers. (It crosses my mind only now that they might have been cheering for something else.) Someone stepped from the Red Sox dugout and crouched behind the plate to receive the ball. When I was a serious baseball card collector, I could identify hundreds of Major Leaguers facially. This guy could have been Reece Maguire, a bullpen catcher, or a fan services staffer with a perk in his job description. Whatever. When the attendant gave me the word, I went into a stretch visible enough so I could be judged favorably on the motion if nothing else. Then with enough of a leg kick to suggest that I knew what a delivery was supposed to look like, I released the baseball, knowing immediately that there wasn’t enough zip or follow through to reach the plate on the fly. But it was on target, and the anonymous catcher fielded it on a bounce without having to move much.
- Aftermath. After weeks of trying to get my 74-year-old arm to do what my baseball brain – frozen at 26 – was telling it, I was relieved to get through this without making the “Top Ten Worst Ceremonial First Pitches” video on the Internet. The catcher handed me the ball, to keep, I guess. I grabbed my jacket from the sidelines and stepped into the stands. The aftermath was actually very cool. People recognized me from the Jumbotron and offered congratulations. I realized most people didn’t see that the pitch hit the ground before it reached the plate.
Although I think I’ll be keeping my day job with The Citizen rather than embarking on a career as a relief pitcher, the experience was memorable. And I want to thank the neighborhood kids who helped me find the range by playing catch after school – Timmy Carroll, and especially Pele Barrett-Parker, whose advice and encouragement stayed with me when it counted most.