Friday, June 17, 2005

"If You Build It, They Will Come..."

Ray Kinsella: "I'm 36 years old, I love my family, I love baseball, and I'm about to become a (blogger). But until I heard the voice, I'd never done a crazy thing in my whole life."

Well, I was now entering the second-half of my day-night doubleheader at "Cosmo Kramer's Fantasy Sports Journalism Camp" as I was invited to throw out the opening pitch at tonight's Cleveland Indians/Colorado Rockies game on Wednesday, June 15th, 2005, 7:05 p.m.

I was just coming off an incredible high from the afternoon luncheon at Landerhaven - feeling good about Mark Shapiro and the general direction of The 2005 Cleveland Indians. If the 1995 Tribe team was the baseball equivalent of "The Empire Strikes Back" in the Star Wars trilogy, then these current crop of Indians were "The Revenge of the Sith."

Upon arrival at Jacob's Field, I was greeted by one of the team's marketing personnel, Brian Howard. It turns out Mr. Howard was actually on the 2001 Kent State men's basketball team - THE TEAM, kids, that went all the way to the "elite 8" that year - THE TEAM that toppled the "evil empire" known as the Indiana Hoosiers before losing to the Cincinnati Bearcats that season (What a GREAT run in Cleveland sports that was - and, yes, Kent State is close enough to Cleveland to be considered "Cleveland sports" - or, at the worst, we're just kissin' cousins...).

Anyway, after presenting me with my honorary Chief Wahoo cap and opening pitch baseball, Howard and I proceed to do THE WALK down the catacombs of Jacob's Field, past the underground batting cages and other areas where "all the magic happens."

Brian Howard and I talked extensively on his Cinderella year with the Kent State Golden Flashes: "Man, I remember going to Indiana that year and seeing nothing but a SEA OF RED. Way up in the corner of the rafters, you could faintly see a glimmer of blue and gold..."

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that Brian was good friends with fellow Kent State alumnus, Antonio Gates. Gates is now playing tight end for The San Diego Chargers and had a career-breaking year in 2004 with 13 touchdowns (as any fantasy football junkie - or his widow - worth their salt can tell you...).

"I just got an email from Antonio a few weeks ago. Believe me," Howard said with a chuckle, "Antonio is as surprised as ANYONE on how well he's doing in the NFL. But he's the hardest working guy I know, and he truly deserves all his success."

Finally, the moment of truth: We walked up THE TUNNEL and broke into the warm sunlight of Jacob's Field. After emerging, I was out on the diamond, only a few feet away from the Rockies players in the visitor dugout - and the actual Indians players warming up in the outfield.

Brian handed me off to another "baseball bomb squad" prepared to diffuse any temperamental journalists from having a hissy-fit meltdown at the last minute. "Slider will be escorting you to the mound," the Madonna-like-man with the headset informed me.

What was Slider - besides the Indians' fuzzy purple and yellow mascot - anyway? Was he a man? A Muppet? Or a metrosexual...? Damn, I should have asked Mark Shapiro that at the luncheon. The one that got away, my friends...

The Madonna Man with the headset was back: "Ben Broussard will be catching for you."

Ben Broussard! Well, I was kind of hoping for Grady Sizemore ...or Jhonny Peralta ...or Victor Martinez. But Ben Broussard was good! I held back my "George Costanza" like urges to say anything stupid. "Ben Broussard!" I responded like the ice cube on the pitching mound that I was destined to become tonight at The Jake. I mean, heck, it wasn't like they were "handing me off" to Juan Gonzalez or something...

Before my ceremonial stroll to the mound with my man-muppet escort, Slider, Ben Broussard came over to the mound to introduce himself. "Hi, I'm Ben Broussard," he said, shaking my hand.

"Dad...?" I wanted to babble. But, no, I'm kidding. I said nothing that would have set the world of broadcasting soundbites on fire other than: "Hi, I'm Chris. Nice to meet you, Ben."

"Now don't be nervous, Chris. Just get it over the mound as best you can," Ben reassured me. Those were the last words of wisdom he had for me before Slider took my hand and we walked arm in arm to the mound - a moment about as awkward as my prom night, if I remember correctly.

The rest is a wavy blank. My friends later told me they were screaming encouraging words for me from their seats but I didn't hear a thing. I think the announcer said my name - but who the hell knows! I didn't even know I was up on the JumboTron - otherwise I'm sure I would have curled up in the fetal position, right there on the mound, and began to suck my thumb.

All I remember is Ben Broussard gently waving his mit at me - his subtle way to signal me: "Just throw it, dumbass!" I'm sure. And, so, I let it rip - and it went right down the middle! I would have jumped for joy, but my spinal cavity had gone numb. I stumbled off the mound in my "Dawn of the Dead" haze as Ben Broussard was there waiting to reel me in.

"Nice job, Chris," Broussard said smiling, autographing my opening pitch baseball.

"Thanks, Ben," I exhaled with a sigh of interstellar relief. "Thanks so much! That was so great..."

My friend - and pitching coach - Mike was waiting for me by the dugout with camera in hand: "Sooo, you probably wanna hit the beer stand now, right?"

"Definitely," I responded in parched desperation - and jubilation.

The Indians went on to win that night with a heroic extra-inning home run by Aaron Boone. The Cleveland Indians have, in fact, won their last six in a row and are finally looking like the contending team that was promised to us by management for the 2005 season.

Did my "opening pitch presence of the mound" have anything do with it? Well, I know for starters I pitched better than C.C. Sabathia that night. (I kept waiting for the call from the bullpen that sadly - and curiously - never came.)

But as my good friend from college, Peter Chakerian, would probably muse: "You might, rabbit, you might!" And since he likes to "paint me" as some diabolical Dr. Doom-ish character who sits up in my secluded fortress playing chess with his Fantastic Four pawn pieces (Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, The Human Torch and The Thing each sold separately!) ...then, hell ya, I'd like to think my kooky Communications-major karma finally rubbed off a little on this city! (Pete, you know I'm just joshing you in my psuedo-journalism manner ...put the keyboard down and step away from the computer!)

Thanks for the memories - and giving me the chance to build "my little ballpark" out in my cyber-cornfield in the middle of nowhere (Even though the fine folks at National City Bank strongly advised me against it!).

Special thanks to the class-act known as Ben Broussard - and congratulations to Ben and his wife on the birth of their daughter, Mia!

The Id and I - Official sponsor of Hoegaarden Belgian Ale.

NEXT ISSUE: In "Amazing Journalism Stories # 22" - My favorite uncle, Dick Feagler, and I pack up the Mystery Machine and drive cross-country in search of "Nessie" ...and a cheap happy hour!


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