Pitching from a Major League mound wasn’t a foreign concept for Jerry McKinnis, and that’s probably why he worried so much about his first pitch.
As a Minute Maid Park welcome to Houston, where next March’s Bassmaster Classic weigh-ins will be held, McKinnis was invited to throw out the first pitch for Wednesday afternoon’s game between his beloved St. Louis Cardinals and the Astros.
To put it mildly, McKinnis was sweating it. A lanky right-hander, he pitched professionally in the 1950s, so he’s familiar with working from mounds. He saw numerous in the minor leagues and has experience at St. Louis’ Sportsman Park and Busch Stadium as well as Pittsburgh.
“But it was the first time I was ever on one when I was 80 years old,” McKinnis said.
And therein lies the rub.
“The thing about it was, two days before, I went out there at the parking lot and we got the measuring tape out and measured off 60 foot, 6 inches,” he said. “I looked out and thought, ‘Holy crap!’ I forget how far away that was.”
Bassmaster TV co-host Mark Zona and McKinnis used to regularly play catch at events, but that’s been a few years. And in the past four or five years, McKinnis said his knee has deteriorated to where he has problems getting up and down the steps at the office. (It really doesn’t seem like he’s slowed down, though.)
“I never realized how much your right knee plays in throwing the ball 60 feet,” he said. “I even tried flat-footed. In 25 pitches to Mike (McKinnis), I bet 22 of them bounced in the dirt.”
Another day of practice netted the same results, so he left for Houston somewhat concerned that he might have to scoot up in front of the mound – ugh, that’s what the old guys do – in order to throw his pitch to the catcher behind the plate.
“To most people, that’s not a big deal,” he said. “To me, I had done that my whole life, and I thought I would possibly have a career doing that. It was pretty serious. It was pretty depressing to me that I’m going to have to move up on the mound because I can’t hit the catcher from here.”
Another factor was his hometown team. He grew up as a Cardinals fan and through fishing has made friends with a number of Redbirds, with Whitey Herzog probably tops among them. He said he didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of any Cardinals.
On game day, McKinnis met with Astros officials and got great guidance from team president Reid Ryan, son of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan. McKinnis was asked if he was pitching off the mound and he told Ryan he wasn’t sure yet.
McKinnis shared Ryan’s guidance. “Lemme give you this piece of advice, if you move up and you miss the catcher, they will boo you like a son of a gun,” McKinnis said. “If you go all the way to the mound and hit the dirt, they’re going to cheer you anyway.
“That was wonderful information. It just took all the pressure off because now I’m going to the mound. I just did the best I could, and I hit the catcher. I didn’t hit the dirt.”
His pitch certainly didn’t have the velocity he had during two minor league seasons, and it might not have gone directly over home plate, but it could have been a swing-and-miss, put-away pitch.
“It was a lot of fun,” McKinnis said. “It was very interesting for me, just from my background in baseball and how I love it. If I had bounced it in there. I don’t know if I could have come back to Little Rock or not.
“It worked out alright, and we certainly got a lot of press out of it, which is what we were after – start waking up people to us going to Houston.”
A B.A.S.S. landing party went to do more reconnaissance for the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic, March 24-26. Tournament organizers as well as the TV crew checked out the area for the big show.
The fishing will be on Lake Conroe, about 45 minutes north of the downtown ballpark, and the Bassmaster Classic Outdoor Expo presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods is in the George R. Brown Convention Center.
“I think it’s going to be incredible,” McKinnis said. “I am not into the thought that you can’t have the Classic in big towns. They did one in Chicago 20 years ago and it fell on its face, but we’re all different than we were 20 years ago, and we’re going to make this work.”
All the Houston people putting this together have been fantastic, McKinnis said, and he said some things will have to be different from recent events. The ballpark, which has a retractable roof, has a large wall of windows letting in light and preventing certain lighting effects.
The weigh-in stage will be set up near third base, with Minute Maid Park’s huge integrated LED video display system out in right field as the backdrop. The Daktronics high-def video screen measures 54 feet high and 124 feet wide.
“It’s a friggin’ monster,” McKinnis said. “It will be sitting right there over our weigh-in stage. Some people will sit close on the field and there will be many in the stands.
“In the suites, I’m sure we’ll have a lot of sponsors and folks up in those. It’s just going to be big league. There’s never been anything like what’s going to happen there for three or four days.”
The Expo will be the biggest it’s ever been, filling 300,000 square feet in the convention center. Having the weigh-ins right next door will make it easy for the fans, McKinnis said.
“It’s really convenient – there’s a number of hotels where you can just walk to the ballpark and the Expo and back and forth,” he said. “Even if you stay outside that area, there’s good parking and, boy once you get there, you can spend all day, it’s all right there.”