Monday, April 29, 2013

No. 402 – Wooden Jesus

Performer: Temple of the Dog
Songwriter: Chris Cornell
Original Release: Temple of the Dog
Year: 1991
Definitive Version: None

When my reassessment of Temple of the Dog began in 1998, it started with the obvious songs before moving to the second half of the album and this song in particular. By the time the 1999 baseball season started, this was my favorite song on the album.

In 1999, my favorite baseball player was Frank Thomas, but a close second was Randy Johnson, The Big Unit. The 1995 Mariners saga made me a big fan, but for various reasons, I never saw him pitch aside from a legendarily comedic incident at the 1997 All-Star Game.

But in May 1999, Johnson’s new team, the Arizona Diamondbacks were to play the Reds at Riverfront Stadium, and I saw that The Big Unit was scheduled to pitch the final game of a three-game set. Considering Johnson’s dominance and that the Reds were coming off a poor season, tickets would be easy to come by and the strikeouts were expected to come fast and furious. I couldn’t miss that.

Scott got tickets in the first row of the red seats for himself, Debbie and me. (I sat in the middle.) He did this because he made a bunch of purple K’s at Kinko’s to hang over the side in tribute. He brought 21, because, well … you never know.

Usually when I sat in the red seats, I didn’t bring my trusty Andre Dawson mitt, because a ball almost never reached them. However, when I saw we were situated so we would be looking almost down the third-base line, I brought it, because, well … you never know.

It was a 7:05 start on a weeknight, but when the first pitch was thrown by Reds starter Steve Avery (an old favorite when he was with the Braves), there might have been 1,000 people in the stands. I know the Reds weren’t expected to do much, but this was ridiculous.

Within three batters, the Reds were behind 1-0, when Matt Williams stepped to the plate. On the first pitch from Avery, Williams took a rip and fouled it off … right to us. I’ll never forget it: The ball looked like it was floating with no speed on it, because it was heading right for me.

Before I had time to think, I just reached my glove out—I didn’t have to stretch to protect Debbie—and the ball whacked in the pocket straight and true. Time stopped for a second as my baseball-playing instincts took over, and then it hit me: After being a fan for nearly 30 years, I caught a foul ball at a Major League Baseball game. I CAUGHT A FOUL BALL!! I did the yes-yes dance as Scott pointed that I was on the scoreboard.

The usher, who had been friendly before the game, came over and asked whether everyone was OK. Then he asked for applause from the section, which was totally unnecessary. I had my prize. Oh, and it was a thing of beauty: crisp, dark from the mud rubbed in by the ump before the game and stamped with the signature of Leonard Coleman, the last real president of the National League.

Well, after that, the game became a footnote, although Scott paid particular attention to every foul ball. They all were dropped—no one else had brought their trusty mitts tot he game, the fools. By the sixth inning, he was calling for a no-catcher, but in the seventh inning, someone else caught a foul ball on the fly.

The Big Unit was dominant but not nearly as dominant as we had hoped. Scott hung only eight K’s as Johnson pitched a workmanlike four-hit 5-1 victory. The game highlight was an RBI double by Johnson, who made a funny commercial before the season where he hoped to become The Long Unit by hitting homers.

The real highlight of course was The Foul Ball. Because the Reds weren’t supposed to be any good, on the Columbus sports cable channel, when the two Ohio baseball teams were in conflict, the Indians’ game was shown live and the Reds’ tape-delayed the next afternoon. Well, The Big Unit game was on tape delay, which meant … I could see myself on TV the next day. I mean, they ALWAYS show fans in the stands catching foul balls, right?

I called Mom and Dad and told them to watch the Reds game that day. The first inning is all they needed to watch; I didn’t tell them why. I had errands to run, so I set my VCR. When I called Dad to ask whether he’d seen it, he didn’t know what I was talking about. Mom, too. Didn’t you guys watch? Yeah, and … ?

I went to my VCR. OK, here comes Williams, here’s the pitch, there goes the ball and … nothing. The ball disappeared, and you could hear applause. Williams looked up, Avery looked up and they didn’t pan the stands. I let the cat out of the bag, and Dad said he heard the applause and wondered what that was about.

Oh well. Being on TV would’ve been gravy. I got the ball, and I have to have Williams sign it at some point. Debbie made a trophy for me with a ball holder and ticket holder noting the batter (Williams) and the catcher (me) on a plaque. It sits in a place of prominence on my Baseball Shelf, still gleaming as much as it did that perfect May evening in 1999.

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