A strikeout to remember

“Strike three!” is music to a pitcher’s ears. But it’s a melody rarely played for a rookie facing his first batter in his college or major league debut.

The odds heavily favor the hitter based on the fear factor alone. Consider if you will an untested pitcher’s fear of failure in front of mom, dad and the hometown crowd. Add in the anxiety at the prospect of letting down his teammates and being chased from the mound. All told, a case of butterflies in the stomach magnified by the pressure to live up to everyone’s expectations can make for a nerve-wracking start.

And more often than not, the leadoff batter will be a seasoned player who is better than most at getting on base. The object is to make sure he doesn’t. Worst case scenario: home run. Best case: strikeout.

Throwing heat

Rookie Gerrit Cole’s much-anticipated June 11, 2013 debut on the mound for the surging Pittsburgh Pirates had all the makings for a memorable event. And with good reason. Gerrit was the number one overall pick in the 2011 draft. The first batter he faced would be the leadoff hitter for the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants. A rousing welcome by Bucco fans as he walked onto the field for warmups added to the hype.

When the moment finally arrived for his first pitch, Gerrit must have felt 30,000 pairs of spectator eyes boring into him – with countless others glued to the TV. The pressure was on.

And his response? Three blazing fastballs, three whiffs, and a resounding thud heard ’round PNC Park as his 99-mph missile hit the catcher’s glove. Fan-demonium broke out; the stadium was electric. An extremely proud mom cheered heartily for her son. The next day, sports writers across the country heaped kudos on the newest Pirate for striking out the first batter he faced in the majors.

Bring it

All the hoopla took me back in time to another pitcher who struck out the first batter she faced in her collegiate softball career – my daughter Roxie.

As a freshman on the Edinboro University Fighting Scots team, Roxie found herself on a bloated roster with eight pitchers. It was deep into the season before she stepped into the circle for the first time.

The perennial powerhouse that is California University of Pennsylvania, a two-time winner of the NCAA Division II national championship, was running up the score against Edinboro. In a true baptism by fire, Roxie was tossed into the game with no heads-up from her coach – two runners on and two outs. I swallowed hard as the cleanup hitter for Cal stepped up to the plate.

Ball one … Ball two … Hitter’s pitch now, but the batter doesn’t swing. Strike one! (looking) … Here comes ball three. Don’t walk her, Rox. … Then Strike Two! (looking). Full count and the pressure on the pitcher is palpable. Will she throw a meatball down the middle of the dish only to watch it clear the fence? Or will her first batter draw a walk as she had with the previous two Edinboro pitchers? Or …

The next pitch seemed to float toward the plate in surreal fashion. It was a perfectly executed screwball that rose a bit at the end and the Cal player swung under it. “Strike three!” Roxie had struck out the first batter she faced in collegiate competition. And the best of the best, to boot. A Kodak moment for sure as No. 16 walked to the dugout amid cheers from her teammates and her mom.

Making memories

Roxie had the good fortune last year to complete a ballpark operations internship with the Pirates. While taking in a game at PNC Park, I had the opportunity to chat with Ogden Nutting, patriarch of the Nutting family which owns both the Pirates and the OBSERVER. He was quick to point out that Roxie was learning from the best in the business, adding that he couldn’t ask for a better employee or finer person than Dennis DaPra, the Executive Vice President and General Manager of PNC Park.

I took those words to heart as I planned a surprise knowing Roxie would be attending a Pirates game this month while visiting some of her college teammates. On the QT, I contacted Dennis and asked for his help in getting a Gerrit Cole autographed baseball. I explained what the two pitchers had in common and how this keepsake would always remind Roxie of her first K. He decided to present the ball to Roxie himself while she watched the game.

True to form, the beefed-up version of Murphy’s Law – anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the worst possible moment – intervened. An hour before game time, I received word that Roxie was in the emergency room of a Pittsburgh-area hospital with her traveling companion who was suffering from undiagnosed acute pain. When I informed Dennis, he called Roxie to check on the girl’s welfare and continued to monitor the situation.

The time had come to let the cat a little bit out of the bag so he revealed to Roxie that a baseball “with a story behind it” was waiting for her in his office. Once her friend’s medical emergency was under control, Roxie traveled 60 miles out of her way to pick up the autographed baseball (and photo), elated that the feat she shares with the Bucs’ rookie pitching sensation had been recognized by the Pirates organization.

And Old Man Murphy didn’t get the last laugh. Rather than spoiling her surprise, the drama that played out only served to enhance it. For shock value alone, Roxie’s receiving a call in the emergency room from Dennis DaPra thoroughly trumped an impromptu visit by him in the stands.

Roxie never saw the Pirates beat the Miami Marlins in extra innings that afternoon. Yet the day was a win-win for her as she not only helped a friend through a crisis, but also brought home a memento to validate a thrilling moment in her collegiate softball career.