Publisher at the Plate

By: Tim Gallagher As a child, I never dreamed of growing up and becoming a newspaper publisher. Like millions of little boys around the world, I wanted to be a baseball player in the major leagues.

But then God invented curveballs and high school pitchers who could throw them. That crushing reality set my life onto another path. If you could not hit a curveball, you could never step into the batter's box on a major-league field.

Until I became a newspaper publisher.

I came to San Francisco last week for the convention of the Newspaper Association of America, an organization composed largely of middle-age-in-the-rearview mirror, tire-in-the-middle men. Most of us probably wanted to be ballplayers, not businessmen, when we were kids.

So, naturally, the opening-night reception was held at the ballpark home of the San Francisco Giants, who were good enough to vacate the premises for the evening (actually, they were on a road trip).

Cocktail napkins, complimentary wine, and an appetizer spread like a State Department reception -- that would have been enough. But the party's host -- Parade magazine -- knew the audience well, and organizer knew they had to offer something more: batting practice off a pitching machine on the actual, honest-to-goodness, grass-so-green-it-looks-painted field.

I put down the chardonnay and stuffed mushroom. I had to try.

I walked the tunnel where Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, and Mike Piazza have walked. I stepped onto the field (after signing a waiver). The red-brick outfield wall was so close it seemed almost reachable. The stands encircled me in layers, making me feel very, very small. My heart rate must have doubled.

The long line of publishers waiting to hit inched along as if we were at Disneyland. Rumors circulated that the machine was throwing 50 mph. Then it was 60. Then someone said 70.

Lots of guys with pear-shaped figures really smacked the ball. Other trim-and-fit guys were swinging and missing and ended up almost falling down.

Now my heart rate doubled again. It had been, what, 30 years since I ended my high-school baseball-playing days? What if I whiffed in front of all these people? As I drew closer to the front, I had gone from dreaming about knocking one into McCovey Cove (just over the right field fence) to simply hoping to make contact.

Then it was my turn. I snapped a helmet on my head. Grabbed an aluminum bat that felt good in my hands. Took a few phantom half-swings.

The Giants coach behind the batting cage told me, "You look like you know what you're doing in there." OK, that felt good. Make sure he's right.

I took a deep breath. The first pitch was coming right down the chute and then it broke away like that dreaded curveball. "Keep your hands back," I said to myself. Stayed with it. Make solid contact. Could not even feel the bat in my hands. Sweet ping. Hard shot to right field. Exhale. Next pitch. Same thing, only a little deeper into the gap this time.

Maybe I could reach McCovey Cove. But I wanted to pull one into left field so I swung early on the next pitch and wound up well in front of it. Hit it off the end of the bat. A two hopper to second. 4-3 in your scorecard.

On the next pitch, I reminded myself to stay back, and I did. I hit it solid, driving it up the middle and causing the guy feeding the pitching machine to duck and his hat flew off. Still, I wanted to pull one. So, I moved closer to the plate and, unlike all the others, the next pitch broke in on me. I hit it off the handle weakly to third.

I shook off my stinging hands and stayed in for one more cut. This time I did pull it on a line into left field. OK, quit while you're ahead. A good night. Now go back to being a publisher.

Still, I felt like a kid at Splash Mountain. I wanted to get back in line immediately.

But I didn't. I grabbed a beer instead and thought about what I'd say to all my sportswriters.


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