Dennis Janson: Behind the scenes at Bill Hemmer's first pitch

CINCINNATI - Granted, he was wearing a Reds jersey with his name emblazoned on the back, but even those approaching head on easily recognized the ceremonial first-pitch delivery boy.  Though now nudging 50, Bill Hemmer is still to many the energetic, respectful, honest and oh-so-loyal local kid who has made good in the cauldron known as cable television. Before his foray into cable, Hemmer was a WCPO sports and news anchor and reporter.

Host of Fox News' “America’s Newsroom,” the Our Lady of Victory, Elder High School and Miami University grad was extended the invitation back in March. Reds’ senior VP for business operations, Karen Forgus, was in attendance when Bill provided the keynote address for the convention and visitors bureau annual meeting at the Duke Energy Center. His wide-ranging presentation first addressed his work history, details of which I suspect were news to many in attendance.

 “ I worked at CNN for 10 years. I’ve been at Fox News for nine. My current boss is Roger Ailes, a Warren, Ohio native. Prior to that, I worked for Ted Turner, a native Cincinnatian. I’d suggest I’m the most fair and balanced person in the room.”

Afterwards, Karen asked Bill if he would be back in town anytime during baseball season, and that she’d like to have him deliver the ceremonial first pitch before a weekend game. And so it was that they agreed Saturday night’s game, telecast nationally on Fox Sports, would be the appropriate venue.

Hemmer, if nothing else, is always prepared. He began his warm-up tosses Friday after a round of golf at Western Hills Country Club with a group of his Elder and Miami pals. His arm showed the rust of spending a disproportionate amount of time in downtown Manhattan. So much so that Brian Kirby, who was catching his sometimes errant throws, asked me later if I had any misgivings about Saturday night’s prime time spot. We both harkened back to Mayor Mark Mallory’s Opening Day debacle and shuddered at the thought of Bill being similarly castigated if he wasn’t on the mark.

That prospect was among a daunting list of intrusions on his focus too. He’d been on the go since 4 AM Friday, arriving an hour late out of LaGuardia. After golf, he retreated to his parent’s Delhi home, got a good night’s sleep and caught up with his mom over coffee.

Things would get more hectic after that. First, off to Great American Ball Park to pick up 16 tickets for family members. Unfortunately, they were scattered in clusters throughout the sold-out stadium, so parceling them out was another issue he had to cope with. Then it was back to home and 4:30 Mass at Our Lady of Victory before heading back downtown.

As accommodating as he always is to his friends, assuring the comfort of his parents, siblings, nieces and nephews is always his priority. Only when they were settled in did he turn his attention to the task at hand. A task, he admitted later, was looming over him like a spherical sword of Damocles. Bill’s preparations continued unabated. Recruited to warm him up, the bruise on my left hand will attest to that.

There is no designated place for ceremonial first pitchers to warm up in the tunnel behind GABP’s home plate. So there were several attempts to pace off 60 feet, six inches to replicate what he’d face once he took the mound. I made the mistake of letting him in on what Marty Brennaman had laughingly told me an hour earlier.  “You tell Bill, that if he doesn’t get that ball over the plate, I’m going to bury him.”

“Oh, I know that”, an amused Hemmer conceded, whereupon he proceeded to bounce a couple past me.
But Bill’s aim had improved considerably by the time he proclaimed himself ready and I struggled to get up out of what once was a catcher’s squat.

Fortunately, everyone’s anxiety proved groundless. Reds outfielder Chris Heisey, who caught Bill’s delivery, helped see to that. When Bill was introduced with great fanfare by stadium P.A. announcer Joe Zerhusen, a lone heckler’s loud “boo” survived the ovation. “You get booed a lot?” Heisey asked him which perversely put Bill at ease. Especially when Heisey added, “You can do this.”

And so he did. A maybe 52-mile-an-hour offering that he swears caught the outside corner. When the ball left his hand, you knew that he knew it would be a strike, as a wave of relief crossed his face. Success!

With that attended to, he could relax and totally devote himself to shepherding the Hemmer clan through a night at GABP. A couple innings behind home plate with his parents, a couple more down the right field line with his sister and brother and another down the left field line with more family members. So much for relaxing! 

That would have to wait for his Sunday morning flight back to New York City, where bright and very early Monday he would again immerse himself in the high-pressure world of network television. But veritable childs’ play compared to delivering the first pitch before a record crowd at Great American Ball Park.

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