I’ve been a big Akron Aeros baseball fan since I attended the team’s first game in the then-new Canal Park in 1997.
It was in April, and it was freezing cold. Light snow flurries fell throughout the game, and I couldn’t see how pitcher Jaret Wright could hold onto the ball with numb fingers. When Ken Babby bought the team last year, we interviewed him and put him on the cover of AkronLife with Orbit, the Aeros mascot. I attended the photo shoot (a perk of the job) and got to stand on the mound and look into home plate. It was then that I decided to ask about throwing out a first pitch.
When Babby changed the name of the team to the RubberDucks, I questioned his decision after 16 years of branding the Aeros name. It took me a little while to understand why: You see, we all had several layers of Akron Aeros baseball gear, and we weren’t likely to buy a whole lot more. But, by changing the name to the Akron RubberDucks, everyone would want to buy all new stuff – me included. I got a RubberDucks cap for Christmas last year and wore it to the games this summer. From a financial standpoint, changing the name was a smart move.
I asked, and asked, and asked for the opportunity to throw out a first pitch, and finally, someone in the front office gave the go-ahead. (Thanks Ken!) I was scheduled to throw out the first pitch at the Aug. 7 game between the RubberDucks and the New Britain Rock Cats, the AA affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.
I asked questions and took tips from anyone I knew who played or coached the game. My son-in-law Jamie is a longtime coach in the West Akron Baseball League and was the shortstop on our church softball team in the ‘90s. And, he had actually thrown out a first pitch at an Aeros game so when I asked his advice, he replied, “I was a sub for someone else so I didn’t have time to prepare. I just stood on the mound and lobbed the ball.”
My grandfather, Chauncey Garfield House, a pitcher himself, taught me how to throw a knuckleball when I was 7 years old; my grandson Liam, also a pitcher, showed me how to throw a fourseam fastball. He said it was the easiest pitch to throw straight. So the fourseam fastball was my pitch of choice for the RubberDucks game.
I had plenty of time to prepare (maybe too much time) as I threw baseballs all summer at anyone willing to catch me. The day before the game, I was reduced to heaving the ball at a tree in my front yard when Nancy said she wouldn’t play catch.
On the day of the game, I took a hot shower to loosen up the arm and did a few stretching exercises. At Canal Park, a young man told me someone would escort me to the pitcher’s mound.
“Do I get any warm up pitches?”
“Can I stand on the mound to make the pitch?”
“Stand anywhere you want.”
A young woman motioned for me to follow her, and I found myself in a pack of 20-some people, some with baseball gloves and others without. That’s when I realized that I would be one of 24 first-pitch throwers. I was eighth in line so I got to watch the first seven make their pitches. A boy of about 12 wound up and spiked his pitch into the dirt. The woman directly in front of me really seemed to know what she was doing as she threw a strike right down the middle of the plate.
Now it was my turn. I had thought a lot about how I was going to throw the ball. I wanted to honor my grandfather by doing an old-fashioned double windup, but that got too complicated when I tried it in practice. I settled on a modern-day windup with a simple lifting of the ball and rocking my whole body into the motion.
I also had a cheering section made up of AkronLifers and friends and family. They were whooping it up when I climbed onto the mound and set my right foot against the rubber. I looked at the catcher (one of the RubberDucks players), rocked into my windup and let loose a fourseamer that went right across the heart of the plate.
From the stands, I am told, it looked like the perfect pitch but I knew I had thrown the ball into the dirt right in front of home plate. And just like that, it was over, and my first words were “I want to do that again.”
On my desk is the ball I threw. It has red dirt on it, and I like it that way. If I had thrown the true perfect pitch, there would be no evidence that the ball wasn’t just something I picked up in the team shop. Mine has real baseball dirt on it, making it — after all — the perfect pitch.
Don Baker, Jr., Founder and Editor-in-Chief