“It’s time,” Caleb Janowski, the Oakland A’s PR rep said to me.
I smiled at the three-year-old boy and his dad, who I’d be sharing first pitch honors with in just a few minutes, then nodded for them to go first.
As Caleb whisked us through the labyrinthine tunnels beneath the Oakland Coliseum, he quickly pointed out the recent attempts the team was making to honor its decorated past, while keeping an eye on the much-promised new stadium. Large images of Oakland Athletic greats like Rollie Fingers, Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley adorned the walls, with their swollen stats highlighting the brilliance of their careers in green and gold.
Emerging from the tunnel onto the field is like coming up for a breath after a deep dive.
Everything is suddenly loud, massive and expansive. It’s a privileged fishbowl point of view. The manicured grass gives easily beneath each step. The smell is fresh, sticky sweet and thick with the day’s cuttings. The crowd, sparse as they were on that night, buzzed in anticipation.
Flashback to about one hour earlier...I was in the parking lot at our tailgate party. I was throwing warm up to tosses to the son of one of my childhood friends, taking, perhaps, too many notes.
“Make sure to spin the ball.”
“Cut down your wind up.”
“Don’t overthrow it.”
“Watch out for the car!”
At least I wouldn’t have to worry about that last one on the field.
All the feedback was well-meaning and delivered with love. The truth was I had already been working on the first pitch for about a month - after 35 years of not working on it - and had locked in a delivery that felt good. I had raised my strike percentage from 25%, when I first started, to a little over 50% by my last practice session. I was reasonably confident that I’d achieve my goal of throwing a heater to, at least metaphorically, strike out my dad’s Parkinson’s Disease.
The A’s had invited me to make this toss based on my documentary series, Boys of Summer. The night before they hosted a private screening of our second film in the series, “Second Base”, at the uber-funky New Parkway Theater in Oakland. A very appreciative crowd of A’s season ticket holders packed the house and showered the film with praise.
The first pitch honors were more than icing on the cake, they were the culmination and celebration of 13 years of work on these first two documentaries and, hopefully, a launching pad toward the next three.
The thunder boomed over the speakers and lightning flashed on the big screens. Back in the stadium, the opening logo for the trailer of my documentary played as my introduction.
My skin rippled with goose flesh. My breath drew short.
I looked around, stupidly, for someone to share the moment with. My friends and family were all in the stands.
“That’s my film,” I blurted out to Caleb.
He looked at me, then said, “I know.”
I fought back tears as the trailer wound down. Caleb patted me on the shoulder.
“You’re up,” he said.
I jogged onto the field, making sure not to step on the third base line as the A’s Public Address Announcer, Dick Callahan, called out, “...he’s also a lifelong Oakland A’s fan and he’s out on the mound to toss it to A’s 3rd Base Coach, Chip Hale.”
I waved to the crowd, wanting all my A’s brethren to know how thrilled I was to be among them and honored to be standing on the sacred mound.
“Okay, Robert,” Callahan boomed, “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
I took a breath, settled into my recently modified delivery, then rocked back and threw. It all felt natural, regular - just as I had practiced over the last month or so. All the reps were paying off. As soon as I released the pitch, though, I realized how wrong I was. Just a fraction of a second too long on my fingertips, despite good velocity, and the ball sunk. It struck dirt two feet in front of home plate.
Chip Hale deftly caught the short hop then tilted his head to the side as if to say, “Not quite.”
Not quite indeed.
I was horrified. I had visions of every failed first pitch immortalized on YouTube in my head with mine being added to the reel. I desperately empathized with Carl Lewis at that moment who waived his first pitch back for a second chance. Without nine gold medals to my name, I wouldn’t receive any such reprieve. I knew the thump of that pitch would haunt me.
Oh, and the three year old? He stepped up after me and delivered a strike - albeit from 10 feet away. Thump.
My lovely wife was the first to greet me as I returned to the stands. She was beaming. I forced a smile.
“I choked,” I said.
“What!?” She demanded. “You did great! It was amazing!”
So goes perspective. I swore I heard boos immediately following my bounce. She and several others in our group told me I was nuts. The latter is just as possible as the former.
The reason I was so upset went well beyond my ego. In my mind, my throwing a strike was going to make fans in the stadium say: “Awesome! I like this guy - he represents me as a fan and I want to support his effort to strike out Parkinson’s!” Lofty stuff for a toss of a rubber ball wrapped in cowhide from one guy to another.
Laugh at me if you will, I’m a believer. Part of me still believes I can take my dad back to the Field of Dreams, in Dyersville, Iowa, the heart of our baseball adventure in 2004, and “heal his pain”. As if a brief walk into the cornfield could wipe him clean of Parkinson’s and the 55 degree tilt in his back due to scoliosis - because, you know, why not have that, too? Completely ridiculous. And yet, I remain a complete believer.
My first-pitch failure was a reminder of life’s imperfections and the limits in my ability to control outcomes. I didn’t sleep well that night, replaying the pitch and the Thump over and over again. Much as I tried to let go just a fraction of a second earlier, every trajectory remained the same: Thump.
It never changed in my dream because it can’t in life and it won’t. It’s done.
But the beauty of baseball is the beauty of life: it goes on. Players don’t have time to wallow over a single pitch, error, inning or game. The season rolls on 162 strong. One of the biggest challenges Parkinsonians face is trying not to live in the past (regrets) or the future (fear). Come to think of it, that’s not just Parkinson’s, that’s being human.
By being present, we allow ourselves to make the most out of what we have. I’m blessed to have the time I do with my dad, mom and family. To share joy (the screening) and failure (the first pitch) are blessings, too.
We will keep going. Dad will keep fighting. The grandchildren will keep growing. And I’ll keep documenting and sharing our stories. Please click here to join us and support us as we do so.