Throwing to the Rays

Roy Hobbs: Red, it took me sixteen years to get here. You play me, and I’ll give ya the best I got.

Red Blow: I believe ya.

-The Natural

 When I walked out of the clubhouse, through the tunnel, and onto the right field of the Rays’ Spring Training stadium, I felt like a big leaguer. It was just like in the movies, the pitchers were warming up in the outfield, the hitters were practicing base running, and Manager Joe Maddon was leaning against the dugout fence, fielding questions from a circle of reporters. It was my first outing in the Grapefruit League and I was pumped to be throwing batting practice to the Tampa Bay Rays.

The movie experience began from the beginning. I was taken through the clubhouse and dropped off at the equipment room. To my left was a wall of
Rays clothing and to my right were rows of bats, helmets, and any other
equipment a player could ever need. I walked out of the room in a full Rays
uniform and a pile of sweet Rays gear.

 Joe Maddon was the first Manager I spoke to at the Baseball Winter Meetings. We briefly discussed my baseball background, talked logistics, and then with a smile he said he wanted to make this happen. With his personal email address in my hand and an affirmation that my dream was possible, I spent the next few days approaching more MLB teams. And the conversation began with, “You know the Rays are going to…”

When Johnny Damon introduced himself to me I knew this would be a different BP experience. For a morning, I felt like I was a part of the Rays team. Manny Ramirez and I talked over the water cooler. I watched some BP from behind the cage and chatted with Don Zimmer and Sam Fuld.  I was hanging out, just as any coach would.

It was the fourth and final round of batting practice when I stepped behind the L-screen and readied to throw. The Toronto Blue Jays were already on the field preparing for game. So, both the Rays and the Jays were staring and waiting for me to toss the first pitch. With my heart beating fast, I wiped the sweat off my hands, looked at the batter, and fired in a strike.

I could hear ‘Hey Soul Sister’ over the loud speaker. “Just sing to the music,” I told myself.  ….”I’m throwing my best BP yet,” I admitted silently. …I then wonder, “Why does Maddon have his arm up in a throwing position. Is he talking about my mechanics?” I throw a ball as I ponder whether my mechanics are ok. ….So, I start singing again. “This is fun,” I thought smiling. And then the strikes reappeared.

With Maddon being the first manager to believe in me and my mission of baseball for all, perhaps it should be no surprise that the Rays did what no other team had done. They directly encouraged my efforts. And the one simple but powerful statement I kept hearing over and over again from both players and coaches, was: “I think what you are doing is great.”

When I was done throwing BP, I spoke to the reporters, signed autographs, and conversed with fans. And as I walked back through the tunnel and into the clubhouse, I thought, “This is way better than the movies.”

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