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First Pitch

Before me, there was a 10-year-old boy. After me would be two NASA astronauts. The little boy threw a perfect strike.

My boss at Lincoln Park Athletic Club had invited me to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field on Friday, May 30, 2003; he’d also told me not to bother coming back to work if I didn’t make it over the plate. (And no, he wasn’t kidding. We’re a health club for god's sake; I should be able to throw a strike.) He was on the field watching now, as were my parents, who, at my insistence, were decked out from head to toe in these totally kick ass vintage Cubs jerseys, despite being from St. Louis and thus Cardinals fans. Todd Wellemeyer, a rookie pitcher at the time, was behind home plate waiting for my throw.

heather.JPGI, Heather Haneman, was to throw out the opening pitch at our annual Cubs outing – I had that in writing on a cocktail napkin. Now I had to do it.

Let me back up. From the time I learned that I was going to throw out the pitch to the time I actually learned how to throw was exactly six months. I’m a dancer. I grew up practicing arabesques and pirouettes, not how to break off a curve ball. I needed help. I enlisted the aid of my friend’s husband, who, while he grew up playing sports, wasn’t exactly the best coach for me. Every Friday for three months, we would go into the gym at LPAC, close the curtains that covered the mirrors, and play catch. I know what you’re thinking, how was that supposed to teach me to throw out the opening pitch? The answer is simple, it didn’t.

My boss knew that we were practicing, and kept saying he was going to come and watch. I convinced him that he should wait until I was ready, then I would “audition” my pitch for him. What I didn’t know at the time was that he was just yanking my chain. He was going to let me throw out the pitch regardless of how good – or bad – the pitch was.

After three months of playing catch in the gym, I decided it was time to step it up a notch. I needed a new coach, one that could actually teach me how to pitch. My biggest problem was that I didn’t know anyone who could pitch. My friends are models, ballet dancers and drag queens, not shortstops and right fielders. And I didn’t want anyone to know that I was learning to throw, because I would have been embarrassed and humiliated if I couldn’t learn in time and my boss went to the bullpen for a relief pitcher.

Then I found my pitching coach at the gym. For the next three months, in secret, I devoted my Friday practices to learning how to pitch. I didn't throw fast and I didn't always throw strikes, heck, sometimes I didn't come near the catcher's mitt. But, for the first time in my life, I was a pitcher.

When the big day came a Cubs rep approached me before going out onto the field and gave me the option of throwing from in front of the mound. I shook him off. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. So there I stood, on the same mound where Fergie Jenkins, Gregg Maddux and Bruce Sutter had stood before. I thought of what my boss had told me. A couple years before me, he'd stood where I was now standing. "The mound is really high, so throw higher then you think you need to," he advised, "because, otherwise, the ball will bounce before getting to the plate.” He was right. From the stands, you can't see it, but when you're standing atop it, the mound is deceptively high.

heatherpitch.JPGThrow high, I told myself as I wound up. I released the ball in a three-quarter delivery just past my right ear. I might not have looked like a pro, but I felt like one as I watched the ball arch toward home, cross the plate and land with a soft thud in the catcher's mitt. I'd done it.

Afterwards, Todd Wellemeyer met me at the sideline and signed my ball. The perfect souvenir. I showed it off the rest of the game as I watched from the stands, like an ordinary fan.

Before I stood on that mound in front of thousands of cheering fans, I'd considered myself a Cubs fan but not a die-hard. Like many, I jumped at any opportunity to spend the day at Wrigley Field but rarely paid much attention to what was happening on the field.

Something changed in me that day, however. I fell in love with the Cubs. Something about being on the field, fully enveloped in everything that made the team special, threw me into a swoon. Now I love everything about the Cubs. I don’t care that they have not won a championship in over 100 years; I can say with pride that I am a Cubs fan for life!

For Father’s Day that year, I gave my Dad the signed ball, displayed in a protective Cubs ball holder. I think that to this day, my dad is secretly a Cubs fan.

Oh, and one of those astronauts who followed me on the mound – he failed to get the ball over the plate. He's fortunate he wasn't working where I worked – or he would have been out of a job.

Dancer, artist and freelance writer Heather Haneman (A.K.A. Feather Handlesmen) is a Regular Loser. Her memoir Big Wigs: Stories of a Straight Girl in a Drag Queen’s World chronicles her adventures as a back up dancer for some of the most provocative Drag Queens on the Circuit.

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2008 at 10:18PM by Registered CommenterLovable Losers Literary Revue in , | Comments14 Comments

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