By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Sgt. A.J. Wild was a little high on the first fast ball he threw me as I warmed him up before the second game of a double-header Sunday a week ago at Bowen Field. Sgt. Wild didn’t want to go to the pitcher’s mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch without loosening up. At first, I tried to commandeer the Princeton Rays’ bullpen staff to throw catch with him, but I later learned that was not appropriate.
Upon learning that it was an issue, I went out to my car where I always carry a ball and a glove in the trunk for just that kind of emergency. In my mind, I’m still the 17-year-old farm boy who thought he might have a chance to try out for the Pittsburgh Pirates. With that first pitch from A.J., I was reminded that I am just a 63-year-old heart-attack victim with reflexes so slow that I scared myself. At the last minute, I thrust my left arm into the air and, as if by magic, the ball found its way into the glove.
I was at once excited to have instinctively caught the ball, and at the same time, freaked out because I didn’t actually see the ball enter the glove and I wondered if I could duplicate the magic again if the ball was sizzling in the direction of my head.
All of that stuff had been second nature to me from the time I was 5 years old until I hurt my knee in December of 1966. For some reason, I thought I could waltz back into the game at any moment of my life, get the fat end of the bat around on a high fast ball and send it out 400 or more feet over the left field fence. I was a thoroughly dangerous hitter when I was 17 when I could extend my arms and make contact. I thought that I would possess those skills forever. That proved not to be the case.
The cool thing about warming up with A.J., was that we used the old tank outside of Bowen Field as our backstop. The next pitch A.J. threw was right on target. After that throw, he threw several more right on the money. I tossed all of them back to him so they bounced a few feet in front of him. Back in the olden days, I could catch a baseball bare handed, but I quickly realized that even the leather of my glove wasn’t thick enough to protect the un-calloused palms of my hand from a baseball.
After the second or third throw, I thought about my brother Stu who gave up on playing baseball when Dad threw a baseball toward him, and he didn’t attempt to catch it because it was my turn to catch it. The ball hit him in the face, and he walked away from the game for the rest of his life. I have finally matured enough in life to understand his point. After all, it was my turn to catch.
Then I thought about Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest athlete of a generation, who had trouble getting around on a Double A fast ball. What would he do now that almost everyone in the big leagues throws fast balls in the mid 90s or above?
Sgt. Wild wasn’t throwing 90 miles per hour, but he had some zip on the ball, and my eyes weren’t following it as quickly as it was coming toward me. Wearing tri-focals doesn’t triple a person’s ability to see. After a few throws, I got over my initial fear and my old baseball instincts started kicking in, but then it was about time for us to go out on the field and for A.J. to throw out the first pitch.
I was too busy looking at everything going on around me to remember that I had a camera in my hand and I needed to take a photograph. Fortunately, Eric DiNovo was there and he got an incredible shot of A.J.’s follow-through with the ball in the air. I had done that the week before when Marla McKenna threw out the first pitch of a game and I got her picture with the ball in the air — a bigger challenge because the shutter on my camera doesn’t open and close as fast as the shutter on Eric’s camera.
I was right proud to throw catch with Sgt. Wild before he walked out on the pitcher’s mound to represent the 304th Military Police Company of the U.S. Army Reserves that had come home from deployment in Afghanistan. After my friend, Brian Krabbe, suggested that we open the reception up to all veterans, the event started taking on special meaning to me.
I talked with Bo Puckett who said his feet froze when he was with the 3rd Army in Germany during World War II. I saw guys wearing hats showing they were Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, and some who didn’t wear any hats at all. All of them know who they are, and all of them appeared to enjoy the food and fellowship.
When Sgt. Wild and I walked into the Rays’ bullpen and I asked a player if we could throw catch, they weren’t ready for the question. However, the players who were there walked up to A.J., shook his hand and thanked him for his service. It made me proud to be a baseball fan.
Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.