Every sport has a ceremonial ritual designed to ignite the festivities.
In hockey they drop the puck and proceed to commit mayhem.
In football they kick off and then trade concussions with one another.
In basketball two players roughly the size of redwoods jump. Really high.
And then there is baseball, with its quaint and charming customs, perhaps the most revered of which being The First Pitch, wherein some unsuspecting soul is escorted to the mound, a fresh-from-the-box ball is placed in his, or her, hand, and he, or she, is told to throw it.
In front of an audience of 20,000 or so.
Armed with this foreboding bit of information a squadron of squirrels begins running relay races in your stomach.
Your throat turns to sand.
And you are being slowly turned to a golden glaze on a luau roasting spit.
So go ahead . . . throw it. Triple Dog Dare You.
A worthy cause
How in the world, they ask, did you ever manage to get yourself talked into this? Well, as is frequently the case in such situations, it seemed to be a good idea at the time. And it - and here's the clincher - it's with the best of intentions and, besides, it's for a worthy cause.
How could I say no? Turns out, I couldn't.
So here I stand, on a balmy August night, smack in the middle of the immaculately manicured diamond on which plays, with varying degrees of competence, the major-league franchise of Philadelphia.
Otherwise known as the Phillies.
Or The Fightin's.
The daunting opponent is San Francisco, World Series champions in three of the last six campaigns. The home team is observing Alzheimer's Awareness Night. It is a vile and insidious disease, a cowardly thief who, methodically and relentlessly, steals from our helpless brain all our links to our past.
It has been flying under the radar, but more and more as it comes to light, the robbery of our memories resonates. It is known now as the Family Disease because so many homes have someone - an uncle, a grandmother, a sibling - doing battle with it.
I am among them. I was diagnosed in the winter of 2013. It was shattering. Gradually, after the why me's and the tear-drenched denials and the desperate attempts to negotiate, after all the woe-is-me's, I made my peace and decided I could curl up over in the corner in the fetal position and wait to die. Or, I could get really angry and get up on my hind legs and kick the living snot out of this thing that is undefeated, with no known cure.
I chose to fight, and this summer wrote a five-part series about it. The response was, by turns, overwhelming and gratifying and humbling. It struck a chord.
A wise man once told me that if we're lucky we'll find before our time is up a cause that is worthy of our passion and purpose.
I've found mine.
Maybe just in time. I'm 78.
My friend Al
My intent is to write until I can't, and to help goad me on I have created a name for my dementia.
In my mind I see a short, stout, bandy-legged gnome with a burnt-out cigar stub in the corner of his mouth and a grease-stained Eagles cap atop his balding head. Hygiene does not interest him.
I'm certain that Al pouted and sulked all during Alzheimer's Awareness Night at the Phillies, with more money being raised to help fund research, to find a cure. In the meantime, our best hope is to fight Al to a standstill.
So here I stand, having agreed to throw The First Pitch, which is a high honor indeed, and consequently I am anxious to do right by it. Truth is, I don't want to make a blithering fool of myself.
I have prepared. Over and over and over. In my youth, I was a lefthanded pitcher with a decent curve, 6-foot-4, and good enough to play a little semipro, but with expectations well beyond reality.
So I drafted my older son, Jim, to catch me, and for the better part of two weeks, I cranked up the old soup bone and threw. Fifty balls each session. Jim lathered me with Icy Hot.
Did you ever try to capture 60 lost years?
So here I stand, as before, facing home plate and the catcher, a fuzzy green creature. The Phanatic, the inventive and tireless mascot, urges me on, offering emphatic support.
So I took a deep breath, wound, and . . .
. . . in my dreams it was a nasty slider, circa Steve Carlton, that came in hissing like a rattlesnake, unhittable.
The truth is, it was a half-fastball low and away, but the Phanatic snagged it with a nifty scoop, sparing me the ignominy of a wild pitch.
When I released it there was an explosion of cheers. Have you ever been the object of a standing ovation? It almost took me to my knees. I wish one for you.
The Phanatic handed me the ball and said: "Thanks for all you've done over the years."
Hey, it's not every night you get a compliment from a fuzzy green creature.
Up yours, Al.