EASTLAKE, Ohio – I guessed it had been six years since I played softball or even thought about playing softball, mostly because the only thing I dislike more than the thought of taking a screaming round object to the teeth or even the stomach is voluntarily putting myself in position to take a screaming round object to the teeth or stomach.
But when the invite came to play in the Thursday night celebrity softball game with Browns cornerback Joe Haden’s name on the marquee — let’s just say Joe’s people called my people — I didn’t hesitate.
Forget my lack of conditioning or lack of actual celebrity status – I’m not getting any younger and it’s time to quit letting my fears get in the way. I borrowed a mitt, and a hat, and though I concocted a plan to feign injury somewhere between warmup tosses and actually having to play, I got there and started having too much fun to follow through with it.
There was nothing to fear but fear itself. At least until the third inning when I took a mighty cut at the first pitch I saw and totally whiffed.
The thought of striking out in slow-pitch softball in front of 1,500 or so people? Now that’s fear.
I hit the next pitch, though not very far, and it turns out that over nine innings of softball only one person struck out swinging.
Haden still hammed it up afterwards — and all night, really. He’s a pro’s pro, a natural at playing to the crowd, making people follow his lead and making people smile, too. I’ve known for years that Haden was a star in the making on and off the field, and he’s so good that if the Browns ever get good, this LeBron James guy will be trying to hang out with Haden.
LeBron was busy filming a commercial Thursday, but Haden still got a few friends to show up. Brian Hoyer was introduced to wild cheers as "the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns" — which he is — and the fans came out to bark for the likes of Miles Austin, Travis Benjamin, Craig Robertson, Buster Skrine, Jordan Poyer and superagent Drew Rosenhaus, who wasn’t much of a softball player but was very much in his element when he spoke to the crowd about how committed Haden is to Cleveland.
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I batted 14th out of 14 in our lineup (my choice, but there wasn’t much argument) and on my second time up, I actually got a hit. I guess I’ve seen enough Tom Emanski commercials to know that if you trust your fundamentals, good things will happen.
I played a couple innings in right field, too. I actually spent my first inning out there becoming the first player to tweet from right field (true story) and had more fun in my second tour when, following Hoyer’s lead, we all sat down on the field when Haden came to the plate.
Haden laughed, just not as hard as we did.
I wasn’t the worst player there – that title belonged to Anthony Lima of 92.3 The Fan radio in Cleveland. I probably was the most uncomfortable player given that all the extra-large jerseys had been distributed before I could get to the front of the line, but I survived. Playing catch with Bridget of the FOX Sports Ohio Girls before the game probably wasn’t bad for my Q rating, either.
If you’ve never seen Bridget, she’s tall, beautiful and vibrant, and the impression I got from watching people in the crowd watch her is that there are people who’d pay to see her walk out of her front door and get the mail. If she autographed it afterward, that would be fine, too.
For some reason, she was a lot more popular in the dugout than I was.
That’s never much bothered me. Plus, there were bags upon bags of ranch-flavored sunflower seeds in the dugout to keep me occupied.
In the late innings, I sat with Hoyer and talked strategy — not softball strategy but strategy for surviving training camp, when the barking and "here we go Brownies" chants that filled Classic Park Thursday night will be much stronger, much louder, and constant.
Beer, Browns and barking are the staples of any successful Cleveland event, and Haden’s softball game had them. One of the between-innings promotions had a grown man in a Browns jersey and shoulder pads come to left field and catch rubber chickens shot in the air via a water balloon slingshot.
The late-inning heckles told me that lots of beer was served. A good time was had by all despite the result – my team lost, 28-15, and over a decade of covering the Browns closely qualifies me to say it really wasn’t that close. But, like we’ve been saying in Cleveland for a long time now, there’s always next year.
Next year, I’m going to need either Skrine or Poyer on my team. Next year, I’m going to make a pregame trip to the batting cages to make sure I’m ready. Next year, I’m going to have Rosenhaus negotiate me more access to Bridget.
I do have one issue I’ll be taking up with Haden when Browns training camp opens next week.
When it comes to jerseys, next year I’d prefer an extra large.