Elle Macpherson, the model who has graced three SPORTS ILLUSTRATED covers, threw out a first ball in Oakland a few years ago. "I remember her," says former A's catcher Ron Hassey, now a coach for the Colorado Rockies. "How can you forget her? She didn't know what to do after I caught it. I didn't know if we were going to shake hands or if I was going to get a smack on the cheek. I ended up hitting her on the forehead with the beak of my helmet." And that, dear reader, is why Elle hasn't been on the cover of the Swimsuit Issue recently.
As much as catchers like pretty girls, they dislike mascots and cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse. "They can't get a good grip with the mittens on," says Mayne.
"They more or less grenade the ball and throw it all over the place," says Slaught. "I don't mind catching a real person. But George Jetson and the Oscar Mayer Hot Dog? You're supposed to be getting ready for a game, and you've got a guy in a costume throwing baseballs to you."
Sasser had a run-in with Roger Rabbit at Shea in 1990. "He was throwing the ceremonial pitch from the stands, and I was about 10 feet from him," says the catcher. "I expected a soft toss, but all of a sudden he fires at me. I didn't have time to get my glove up, and the ball nicked my ear as it went past me. There were a lot of kids around him, but I got all over him. I aired him out pretty good."
So much for celebrities. Sometimes, as it should be, the fanfare is for the common man. Mike Burke, the former president of the Yankees, gave an 81-year-old pharmacist at the Plaza Hotel, Herbert Bluestone, the first shot on Opening Day in 1973. Bill Veeck did Burke one better, or rather 19,999 better. For the Comiskey Park opener in 1977, Veeck gave out 20,000 foam balls, which the fans threw on the field to usher in the season.
In 1976 the Dodgers had a peanut vendor throw out the first ball. This was no ordinary peanut vendor, however. This was Roger Owens, whose distance and accuracy with a bag of nuts is truly astounding; he has since gone on to fame on The Tonight Show. In '76 Owens was asked to make the longest ceremonial pitch ever, from halfway up the loge level behind home plate at Dodger Stadium, over the field-level seats and over the screen to waiting catcher Steve Yeager. As Owens recalls, "They had this big announcement about me and how I'd been throwing peanuts since 1958, and that got me nervous. There were 50,000 people watching me, and I was trembling. Somehow I got the nerve up and let it fly. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner said the next day that I threw a perfect strike, though they were probably being kind. Yeager might have had to move his glove a little."
The choice of Owens was certainly more inspired than the choice to open Dodger Stadium in 1962: Kay O'Malley, the wife of owner Walter O'Malley. As one writer observed that year, the honoree should have been Avrana Arechiga, the matriarch of a clan that the Dodgers had evicted from Chavez Ravine to build their stadium. "After all," he wrote, "[O'Malley] threw her out three years ago."
The king of first ball promoters is Bill Giles, the president of the Philadelphia Phillies. Giles's career, in fact, owes quite a lot to his first ball selections. When he was promotions director of the Astros, he arranged for 24 astronauts to open the Astrodome by throwing 24 balls to 24 different players and coaches. The Phillies hired him away to oversee the debut of Veterans Stadium, and for its first Opening Day, in 1971, Giles had a helicopter hover above the stadium and drop a ball to catcher Mike Ryan, who was standing on second base. As Ryan remembers, "It was windy. I looked up, and I couldn't see the ball. Then I saw it, and I just start running like hell. I caught it 15 feet in front of the dugout on the dead run. It hit the heel of my glove, bounced straight up in the air, and I grabbed it. Phew."
Over the years, Giles has had the first ball thrown by Paul Revere, who galloped from Boston to Philadelphia ("The Redbirds are coming! The Redbirds are coming!"); Ben Franklin; William Penn; Kiteman I, II, III and IV; Cannon Man; Rocket Man (not Roger Clemens); and aerial motorcyclists Monique & Guzman (neither Juan nor Jose). For a time, the late National League president and baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti put a stop to such stunts, but on Thursday the Phillie Phanatic is scheduled to parachute down to former manager and general manager Paul Owens—a.k.a. the Pope—who will then throw out the first ball.