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See, during practice, you don’t have Ken Griffey Jr. staring back from one dugout. Or Mark McGwire staring back from the other. Or 51,267 people fixated on your right shoulder.
It’s different live, ya know? The way jumping out of an airplane is a bit different from the tarmac than it is from 10,000 feet.
“I literally practiced the fastball, the fastball, the fastball, just throw it right over the plate,” Ellis Clements recalled with a laugh. “I practiced probably every day up until that morning.”
If he could do it again, he’d throw the heater. Center cut. Right between Jason Kendall’s shoulder blades.
But he was 12 then, preparing to throw the ceremonial first pitch of the 1998 Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Coors Field. When you’re 12, your heart’s tap dancing at about 300 miles per hour. Your brain goes into orbit somewhere west of Venus.
“I wanted to show a little something in there,” Clements said. “Show a little something that I probably wasn’t ready for at the time.”
Which is the short version of why the first pitch of the first All-Star Game in Colorado history got one-hopped to Kendall, the Pittsburgh Pirates catcher waiting behind home plate. Ellis Clements shook off logic and tried an off-speed pitch.
“I just went for it,” Clements said this week.
He’s 35 now, 23 years wiser. A lot taller. A few pounds heavier. And with the All-Star Game returning to Denver next week for the first time in a generation, it’s funny how all that good stuff — even a bad ceremonial first pitch is still a great ceremonial first pitch — from ’98 comes flooding back.
The time with Frank Robinson, the Hall of Famer who’d joined him on the mound — one of baseball’s greatest hitters, leaders, and, like his peer Willie Stargell, one of the game’s all-around father figures. A man so giving, he’d let the little kid from Aurora pick his brain for hours before the game.
“Just remember,” Robinson told Clements, quietly, as the two got to the mound, “You just do what you know how to do.”
Ellis Clements knew how to pitch. He was 12 with a plus fastball, a wunderkind on his Boys & Girls Club team who’d idolized Roger Clemens’ tenacity and Griffey’s grace.
Somebody from Mastercard had knocked on the family’s door in June, some three weeks before the All-Star Game. The company was sponsoring a 3-mile human “Catch Across Denver,” they told him, and you’re the last leg of the chain. Congrats, kid.
And what a ride. Roaming the playing field during the Home Run Derby, and again at the Tuesday night showcase.
The day before the game, he went with Robinson and Goose Gossage, the Hall of Famer and Colorado native, to meet with a representative at Rawlings and watch the ceremonial final stitches being put on the ball that he was going to throw. Mastercard even sprung for a not-so-little shopping spree.
“(They’d said to) just get whatever I wanted. It was awesome,” he said of the sponsor.
He bought a new Rawlings glove with two purposes — to use for the pitch, and then to get as many All-Stars to sign it as possible.
McGwire was the toughest autograph to land. It was the year of Big Mac, free time was sparse, and everybody wanted a piece of the St. Louis slugger.
“I had to kind of (say), ‘Hey, Mark! Hey, Mark, I need your signature!’” Clements recalled. “But he was Mark McGwire, it didn’t matter. He could’ve done whatever he wanted to do at that time. He got it to me.”
Clements cracked that his appearance at Coors led him to become something of a minor celeb himself. Especially around West Middle School, Smiley Middle School, and East High.
“I had a little bit of popularity,” Clements chuckled. “It was fun. It was a funnn time for me. Trust me.”
Before long, though, life started tossing curveballs. Clements became a father at a young age. He’s pushing 40 with six kids, ranging in age from 21 to 6.
“A year or two after that All-Star game, then, it was no more baseball,” Clements explained. “I didn’t do any sports after that. Kind of took a different route in life.”
The road eventually brought him to Commerce City, where he works for U.S. Bank in credit card services and fidelity investment accounts.
“The people that knew me as a kid, who I grew up with, that I played baseball and football with, most of them are dads themselves,” Clements mused. “And they’re like, ‘Man, you remember how you got to throw the (first) pitch?’
“I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ For certain people, it still holds a lot of weight. For a lot of people, it’s still an exciting thing.”
And he still has that glove. The one purchased on that shopping spree. The one that now has 11 signatures from players who were a part of that game, including McGwire’s.
Hang in there long enough, it’s funny what comes back around again. Eventually.
“I was thinking, ‘Is there going to be a kid that’s selected to (throw) that (pitch)?’” he said. “That was my first thought process. I was like, ‘Are they going to go younger? Maybe older?’”
MLB officials said Tuesday that the tosser of the ceremonial first pitch will be announced closer to game time. No one from Mastercard has knocked on Clements’ door. Yet. If he wants to relive those memories in person, he’s going to have to figure out a way to land a ticket.
“The advice that I would give them … is to take advantage of everything that comes with being able to be around those professional athletes that you get to be around,” Clements said. “Be excited. Go out and throw the best pitch that you know you can throw.”
And the pitch?
“Fastball,” Clements replied. “Right down the middle. You can’t go wrong with that.”