This week’s inductees into the “Overrated Hall of Fame” are … commercial tributes to the dead.
If you’re the type of baseball fan who actually attends live games, you know all too well the hokey tradition that transpires ten minutes before every game: The Ceremonial First Pitch. The home team trots out some C-list local celebrity or a wounded vet or the good congressman from the third district. He is met with something below the level of “smattering applause” despite the public address announcer’s high decibel plea for a hearty [fill in name of the good ol’ home team] welcome. Then no one pays much attention as the beaming honoree bounces a “pitch” to the team’s third-string catcher.
But once the post-season begins, teams start looking for ways to make the first pitch more of a spectacle. Perhaps a few dozen First Responders will throw out a group first pitch. Or the governor himself will make an appearance, smiling broadly as he is booed on his way to and from the mound. The deeper a team goes into the post-season, the greater the chances are that someone actually worth seeing – a Hank Aaron or Sandy Koufax – might show up to sling a first pitch that does not bounce. (Unless the heartless public relations arm has a sadistic streak and somehow convinces a one-foot-in-the-freezer Ted Williams to let his half-blind ass be wheeled out to the mound at an All-Star Game.)
However, a lot of the time, these ceremonies can go from hokey tribute to downright nauseating display of disingenuous public relations. Take this past Friday’s first pitch at the Texas Rangers-Tampa Devil Rays series opener in Arlington, Texas. The Rangers organization, which apparently has as much shame as it does World Series championship history, used for a first pitch little Cooper Stone, the son of the man who died at the stadium earlier this year when he toppled over a railing trying to catch a ball tossed by Rangers centerfielder Josh Hamilton. It was a freak accident with no one at fault.
Friday, this little boy, all of six years old, walked out to the center of the infield with his (smokin’ hot, by the way) mom, the widow of the poor dude who died, and tossed a pitch to – who else – Josh Hamilton. Then, Hamilton shared a few words with the mom and boy before he and the boy hugged. The crowd went crazy, tears were shed and announcers gushed about what a classy and touching move it was for the Rangers to have that boy throw out the first pitch.
I found it sickening. It was exploitive and orchestrated to elicit a cheap, Disneyesque type of emotion by people conditioned to respond without thinking. The Rangers’ gesture was not, at its core, about doing something for the kid and his mom. It was a calculated effort to make themselves look classy and to ensure touching pictures on Yahoo the next day.
From what I’ve read, the Rangers had, up to this point, handled the situation perfectly. Team President Nolan Ryan and Hamilton, who probably feels a bit of unnecessary guilt, have both reached out privately to the family beyond the perfunctory first contact to offer condolences and mitigate the damages of any potential lawsuit. They have raised the height of the railings at the stadium to prevent another blameless tragedy. Even Mrs. Cooper has praised the Rangers for the first pitch opportunity, and she’s probably being sincere. Her little kid got to go onto a Major League field and meet his idol.
But the Rangers still dropped the ball (okay, bad euphemism for this situation) by making their outreach a spectacle for public consumption, a phony act of magnanimousness that had one purpose only: To coax easy, icky tears out of people who already felt genuine sadness for the man’s widow and now fatherless child. But it wasn’t truly touching. It felt dirty. Everything they did for these people should have been done in private.
I don’t doubt the surface sincerity of all involved, from the public relations hack who first hatched the plan to the no doubt greatly disturbed Ryan and Hamilton. But as soon as it was put on display for a national TV audience, it became not all about the kid and the mom but instead mostly about the Rangers’ ability to tug at hearts and get the moment covered on ESPN.
But hell, maybe they’re just giving the American public what we love, which is to be pulled by the nostrils through a two-minute group grieve before we can go back to forgetting about the haute tragedy du jour. We experienced this a few weeks ago when every home MLB and NFL stadium tried to create the biggest, bestest 9-11 blowout bonanza … er, I mean solemn tribute.
Those ceremonies weren’t about the victims as much as they were about the home team’s ability to unfurl the biggest flag or cobble together the biggest group of survivors or firemen or cops. It wasn’t about the 3000+ dead as much as it was about the coolest commemorative sleeve patch and the most stirring rendition of “God Bless America” and the Air Force fighter jets that screamed overhead at just the right time.
I’m not so heartless that I don’t feel for the kid who lost his dad, or the man’s widow, or Josh Hamilton (who did nothing wrong) or for anyone directly affected by 9-11. Just ask me to shut up and reflect for half a minute and I’ll do just that. And who knows, without an adorable, towheaded little kid and a big hug near the pitcher’s mound and an 80-yard long flag and a terrible song like “God Bless America,” I might actually feel something true and genuine.
Instead, because it was so contrived, all I remember is the perfect, blue-jeaned ass of the kid’s mom.
Ned Bitters is, in fact, overrated. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.