Mike Masterson is taking the day off. A version of this column was originally published April 17, 2008.
Clutching the ball against my chest with both hands, I stared down the 60½ feet between the pitcher's mound to home plate.
Razorback catcher Thomas Hauskey of Springdale opened his glove and waited. A stand of fans was about to watch me heave the ceremonial first pitch of the game with Oral Roberts University.
It was a cold April evening at Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Night in Baum Stadium. In those anxious moments, the memories of what I like to call the GE--Great Embarrassment--came rushing back.
I visualized the horror that had unfolded on this very mound two years before. The GE had come to pass despite an afternoon of tossing dozens of backyard balls in preparation for 2006's first pitch.
My wife, who had been receiving those pitches, had assured me I was ready. Remarkably, I had been zipping balls into the strike zone with a regularity unknown to most aging diabetic males with artificial hips.
I do believe I might have caught myself even strutting like a teenager just before we climbed into the car and headed for the GE. "Yeah, that's right. Who's your pitcher, baby?"
I had casually strolled to the pitcher's mound on that balmy evening in 2006 as the announcer blared to the 5,000 or so seated in the stands my name, Social Security number, birth date, favorite color, hometown and where I could be razzed later. I remembered that I had kept repeating a ditty just above my breath: "Start high and finish at the thigh."
It was to be a slice of French silk pie on the night of the GE: Simply throw the baseball to a stationary target 20 yards away. Before I fired my cannon, the catcher had assured me, "Hey, man, just get it anywhere around me and I'll catch it."
Actually, he might have said, "Hey, old man," but that remains unclear.
I do vividly remember confidently reaching waaay back and slinging in a forward motion, expecting to observe an impressive strike traveling at least 80 mph.
In the process, I apparently became confused. Instead of starting high and finishing at the thigh, my anxiously hurried "delivery" began somewhere beneath my shoulder and was released most likely around my rib cage.
The result was that the pitch I had practiced so diligently to throw respectably when it mattered went sailing nowhere near the awestruck young catcher, but rather toward the dugout.
Players ducked and scattered to avoid injury.
I cannot begin to describe for you here how it feels to perform something so utterly humiliating in front of thousands of people holding hot dogs. If you've seen one of those films where momentary mayhem occurs in slow motion with people screaming and bodies flying through the air, you can understand the scene.
After the smoke from the GE had cleared, all I could think to do was grin like Forrest Gump and wave as if I'd meant to do that.
So here I stood once again on this mound, obviously in need of further public shaming.
How could I have volunteered again? There had been no practice or warm-up this time. Nope. I was flying cold and blind out here in the red dirt. Hauskey waited. I stood frozen in the realization that I likely would set a University of Arkansas record, possibly an NCAA one, if I sent a second consecutive pitch spinning into the dugout.
The now-or-never had arrived. My arm drew slowly back and my left leg rose to gain leverage. I kept repeating, "Like throwing rocks at a can, Mike."
The ball swung around high above my shoulder and released from open fingers almost in front of my chest. I don't, in all honesty, recall slapping my thigh.
Words cannot express the joy I felt as I watched the white blur sail, kind of, toward Hauskey. Well, all right then, it was a lobbed toss that arrived high and just a little outside. Yet in that instant of glee, I believe I detected angelic organ music and saw every shoulder relax over in the dugout.
Just that quickly, it was over. My sideline night job as a ceremonial first pitcher and slapstick comedian had come to a marginally respectable conclusion. Hauskey handed me the ball as a reminder that I could lob almost straight from 20 yards.
I was back to being just another newspaper columnist.
Actually, the redemption of my GE was probably more a parable about the innumerable benefits of avoiding over-practice, hubris and grossly inflated expectations.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]