Here comes a pitch for perseverance

In the summer of 2011, I was fortunate enough to live out a lifelong dream.

I stood on the pitchers mound at Classic Park in Eastlake, OH ready to throw out the first pitch of a professional baseball game.

Now, at minor league games, and even most Major League games, there is not just one first pitch. Go to PNC Park or Progressive Field early enough and you’ll see a commemorative or ceremonial first pitch before the game-time first pitch, which occurs about five minutes before the players take the field.

At a minor league game, nearly everybody in attendance gets to throw a first pitch, it seems.

Having a birthday? You get a first pitch.

Celebrating an anniversary? You both get a first pitch.

Sponsoring the game? The whole company gets a first pitch.

You get the idea.

At this Lake County Captains game, I was throwing out the first pitch as a representative of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, a sister team of the Captains, within the Cleveland Indians organization.

The thing was, none of the 3,000 or so fans in the stands know it was Matthew Peaslee throwing out the first pitch.

On the mound, they saw Scrappy – the large dog of a mascot for the Scappers.

In the mid-July heat, I stood there underneath a covering of fur and polyester. Inside the costume, it felt hotter than a summer in Flagstaff, Ariz.

I was sweating.

Lucky for me, my sweat could not be seen from the outside and I didn’t have to grip the baseball with my wet palms. I was, however, tasked with the scenario of finding the best way to grip a baseball with a hand that, technically, wasn’t my own.

It’s hard enough to hold a pen and sign autographs for kids as a mascot, it’s even harder to handle a round object and move it more than 60-feet away to a small target.

This was the first time I had thrown a baseball since that one time I actually got to pitch in a Pony League game when I was 14.

All I knew was that I couldn’t screw up this priceless opportunity.

Despite the internal and external conditions, I (I mean, Scrappy) took advantage of my (his) time in the spotlight and delivered a perfect strike to the catcher.

It was a moment I will never forget. It was also about five seconds that those in attendance that night probably forgot by the time they went to get a helping of Dippin’ Dots in the second inning.

Still, it was special to me.

Today, there is another special first pitch coming before a baseball game.

At about 12:55 p.m., on the field at PNC Park, Pitt running back James Connor will stand on the pitchers mound to a throng of cheers as he prepares to open the 2016 season for the Pirates and throw out the first pitch.

Now, Connor’s selection isn’t just because he’s a talented athlete who happens to play in the same city as the Pirates. Connor’s road to the center of the most beautiful ballpark in the majors was a long one.

In December, Connor was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Instead of backing down and giving up on his life, let alone his athletic career, Connor attacked his disease.

The 20-year old hasn’t slowed down and he continues to practice and workout with his Panther teammates.

Through these past four months, Connor has been celebrated for his perseverance. Today is a chance for Pittsburgh and the tri-state region to show their support for a kid who is clearing obstacles.

Before the season even starts, the Pirates organization has already put one on the board. This was a great move and a total win for all involved.

You don’t have to be a Pitt fan or even a baseball enthusiast to appreciate special moments like this.

(Peaslee is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)