SCV Dodger Night meets "Hands of Stone"
Tim Whyte · May 11, 1997
"Just don't put it in the dirt," I cautioned Tim Burkhart, the pitcher, as I, the catcher, prepared for The Pitch. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Getting to catch a pitch at Dodger Stadium.
The Big Leagues. The Show.
Yeah, the Big Leagues play there, too, but this was the ceremonial opening pitch of Santa Clarita Valley Dodger Night, an annual extravaganza that attracts several thousand Santa Claritans every year. Burkhart, as president of the SCV Chamber of Commerce, was to be the pitcher, and I -- as whatever the hell it is I do here -- was to be the catcher. I brought my own glove, which honestly doesn't get much use. I'm a hockey guy, not a baseball guy.
"Don't put it in the dirt," I repeated. "I don't want to have to dig this thing out of the dirt. Nice and easy. Just get it past the plate. Lob it if you have to."
It didn't look as if he would have any problem. He's a strappin' lad, and somewhere in his closet at home there might be a letterman's jacket. He looked relaxed enough, so I figured I wouldn't have to tease him much about being a Muppet-armed girlie pitcher.
I didn't really think it would be a problem, but I had to issue the warning anyway: "Don't put it in the dirt."
I admit, I was nervous. This was the second "tell your grandkids about it" experience I'd had in the past few months.
In the first such experience, I was a little more at home. During Santa Clarita Valley Night at a Kings hockey game last month, I got to go on the ice to photograph the ceremonial face-off.
I wasn't an actual participant, but it was a kick to be on the ice at the same time as the NHLers. I'd played exhibition games on the Forum ice before, but the only NHLers I'd ever shared ice-time with were a couple of former pros who skate circles around me every Wednesday night in my league at Ice-O-Plex in the San Fernando Valley.
SCV Kings Night was cool, but I felt kind of at home on the ice. And I wasn't under any performance pressure except maybe getting the shot of the ceremonial puck drop. My 19-month-old son was in the stands, and he saw me on the ice. A week or so later, he would see me play one of my beer league games.
Now, he thinks I play in the NHL. When he sees the Stanley Cup playoffs on TV, he looks at me, then looks at the TV, then looks back at me, as if to say, "Why aren't you out there, man?"
Then he yells, "Da-Das!"
Whatever. Let the kid think what he wants.
The big-league baseball field, though, was altogether foreign. I was like Newt Gingrich on an overnighter in the Lincoln Bedroom. Or Madonna in a convent.
You get the idea. I've played some casual softball over the years, and I think if I were pressed into action I could still belt the ball pretty good, but I am not, by any stretch, a "baseball guy." I like to go to a few games every year, but for me it's mainly a spectator sport, a fabulous excuse to eat hot dogs.
"Don't put it in the dirt," I admonished Tim Burkhart.
"No problem, Tim," he said, prompting me to speculate to Luke Schrotberger, the Dodgers representative, that this may be the first Tim-Tim battery ever assembled on a Major League field.
Luke, an incredibly hospitable sort, agreed that it might.
I told Burkhart that, if he put the ball in the dirt, it wouldn't matter how many people told me, "Hey, it's OK. Even Piazza couldn't have dug that one out."
Oh no. If he put it in the dirt, and it was even in the right time zone, for cryin' out loud, I'd be expected to catch it. If I did not, the catcalls would come, and the guys back at the office would give me a hard time.
Within a few days, I was sure, there would be a picture of me posted on my office door. Some prankster would get a marker and draw a circle around my hands and the glove I was holding as I was introduced at Dodger Stadium. The prankster would write on the picture, "Hands of Stone."
"Guess you really dropped the ball at Dodger Stadium," some quipster would quip.
The newsroom is full of them: People who will seize upon an opportunity to tease anyone, even the boss, and ride the material mercilessly.
I would protest that, hey, I was doing good just to knock it down, and it was a challenge just to keep the errant pitch from screaming past me into the backstop. "And it was on my backhand," I'd argue. "It was a feat of godlike proportions just to get in front of it at all. Heck, it bounced -- twice -- before it even got to me."
But I knew they would never let up. You either catch the pitch, or you don't. If you don't, you have a bullseye painted on your chest for the following week, no questions asked.
"Don't put it in the dirt," I told Burkhart again, as the all-SCV high school band was playing in the outfield. "Nice and easy."
"I'm tempted to make you work for it, you know."
"Don't put it in the dirt," I repeated.
"OK. Nice and easy."
We were introduced along the first base line as game time approached. I waved as the camera game me my closeup on Diamond Vision, my moment in the sun. I tried unsuccessfully to look cool.
I tried, unsuccessfully, not to look nervous.
"Don't put it in the dirt," I told Burkhart, one last time, the final piece of advice to a soldier going off to battle.
We took our places. Tim went to the mound, and I got into a half-crouch behind the plate, where Mike Piazza sets up shop about 80 times a year. It occurred to me that I was not wearing my protective cup.
"Come on, Timmy!" I yelled, calling him Timmy because the rules say one Tim is allowed to call another Tim Timmy. "Put it right in there, Timmy! He's no hitter, he's no hitter at all! Put it right past 'im! Put 'er right there, Timmy boy! Burn it on in there!"
There was no "hitter," but hey, I was trying to get into the spirit of the thing.
Burkhart wound up, poetry in slow motion. I believe he let out a little effeminate yelp upon releasing the ball. It zipped through the air, sort of in my general direction. I reacted, catlike, of course.
And where do you suppose he put it? Where do you suppose that pitch was, the one pitch that I'll ever have the chance to catch at Dodger Stadium? Is there any doubt?
Of course you know where he put it. Right in the dirt, about three feet to my right.
Nice pitch, Alice.
©TIM WHYTE | PUBLISHED BY PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR | ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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